Iran's Saudi oil attack part of dangerous pattern using proxies

Experts describe Iran as relying on nonattributable attacks to escape direct retaliation.
Tuesday 17/09/2019
In this July 21, 2019 file photo, a speedboat of the Iran's Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized on Friday by the Guard, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. (AP)
In this July 21, 2019 file photo, a speedboat of the Iran's Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized on Friday by the Guard, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. (AP)

The assault on Saudi Arabia's oil installations follows a new and dangerous pattern that's emerged across the Arabian Gulf of precise attacks that leave few obvious clues as to who initiated them.

Since May, with the still-unclaimed explosions that damaged oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the region has seen its energy infrastructure repeatedly targeted. Those attacks culminated with the September 14 assault on the world's biggest oil processor in eastern Saudi Arabia, which halved the oil-rich kingdom's production and caused energy prices to spike.

Some attacks have been claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015. Their rapidly increasing sophistication fuelled suspicion that Iran may be orchestrating them -- or perhaps even carrying them out itself as the United States alleges in the case of the recent attack.

"Iran can count on public scepticism to afford it some deniability under any circumstances but an attack of this magnitude stands a much greater chance of provoking very severe diplomatic and military consequences," warned Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran only claimed one attack during the period, the downing of a US military surveillance drone it alleges entered its airspace on June 20. It publicly gave medals to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members who manned the anti-aircraft battery that downed the drone. It separately acknowledged seizing oil tankers, most-prominently the British-flagged Stena Impero on July 19.

However, the attacks on the oil tankers and the Houthi-claimed assaults on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure would match up with previous incidents blamed on Tehran. Experts describe Iran as relying on nonattributable attacks when blame is difficult to assign given the circumstances.

The reasons for this are severalfold. Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been unable to purchase sophisticated weapons from the West like its Gulf Arab neighbours. Its air force remains replete with pre-revolution, American-made F-4s, F-5s and F-14s, as well Soviet- fighter jets. The US Navy sank half of Iran's operational fleet in a one-day naval battle in 1988 amid the so-called "Tanker War."

While it has built its own missile arsenal, experts said Iran's armed forces would suffer in a head-to-head military confrontation. Launching attacks that can't be easily linked to Tehran limits the chance of direct retaliation.

Separately, Tehran has worked to fashion a network of proxy forces in the Middle East. Iran backs the Lebanese militant group and political party Hezbollah, which offers it a way to pressure Israel, a long-time foe. Iran has worked to do the same with the Houthis, members of a Shia Zaydi sect who seized Sana'a in September 2014. Attacks claimed or attributed to these groups may have involved Tehran directly or indirectly, analysts said.

Those who allege Iran's involvement point to the timing of the attacks coinciding with key moments in the unravelling of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from on May 8, 2018. That sparked a US sanctions campaign that has cut off much of its oil exports from the international market, amid promises by Iranian officials that no one would be able to export oil from the region if Tehran couldn't.

A year to the day Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran warned it would begin enriching its uranium closer to weapons-grade levels. On May 12, the first mysterious attacks struck oil tankers off the Strait of Hormuz. Two days after that, the Houthis said they struck Saudi Arabia's crucial East-West Pipeline in a drone attack.

As Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who carried a message from Trump, on June 13, a Japanese oil tanker and another vessel came under attack. A video released by the US military appeared to show Iranian forces removing a magnetic bomb, known as a limpet mine, from the Japanese vessel, something never explained by Iran. The IRGC shot down the US drone on June 20.

The September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia came after Iran further stepped away from the nuclear deal and ahead of the UN General Assembly amid speculation of a meeting there between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on September 17 quashed the idea of any Trump-Rohani talks.

Satellite images of the attacked Saudi sites released by the United States show the damage done largely in a northern direction at the sites. If an attack had come from Yemen, the southern sides the structures would have been damaged, US officials say.

To the north across the Arabian Gulf lies Iran and Iraq, where Irani-backed Shia militias operate. Iraq has denied that the attack came from there. Kuwait, which sits between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and is close to western Iran, separately acknowledged investigating reports of a drone or low-flying object speeding over the oil-rich country just before the Saudi attack.

UN investigators have said the Houthis' new UAV-X drone likely has a range of up to 1,500km. That, in theory, could put the plant and the oil field struck September 14 in range. The United Nations, Gulf Arab countries and the United States accuse Iran of supplying arms to the Houthis, something Tehran denies.

However, Houthi drones typically detonate in the air or when they slam into a target, spraying out shrapnel like buckshot. The Houthis have used drones in attacks this way in the past, with one captured on video in January exploding over a crowd at a military parade.

The images from the September 14 attack, however, show precise, deeply penetrating hits on structures at the oil processing facility.

"Previous Houthi drone strikes against oil facilities tended to result in quite limited damage which could be an indication that a different weapons system was used this time," said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.

As authorities investigate the Saudi attack, they'll rely on forensic examination of the weapons used to determine what struck the site. That, coupled with specifics on damage, may allow investigators to firmly assign blame in just the latest murky attack in the region.