The Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities highlight how quickly the Middle East’s conflicts can evolve, underscoring the new reality that Saudi Arabia could be targeted directly and forced to enter or not into a military conflict in the region, with or without the help of its arch-ally; America.
Things have become slightly clearer since the 14th September at 04:00 AM but some key questions have remaining intriguingly unanswered.
Amongst the points that have been clarified :
. The aerial strikes on Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oil field and Abqaiq crude-processing plant last weekend involved 30 cruise missiles and modified Drones.
. Saudi Arabian officials have said that the drones and missiles used in the attack were made by Iran. However, independent experts have concluded that the drones and missiles exhibited “resembled Iranian warfare but needed closer examination to be certain”.
. The attacks were carried out with surgical precision and the damages inflicted to the strategic Oil installation were considerable but not with lasting consequences. The attacks seemed to target with high precision key equipment at both sites, shutting the plants completely even
though majority of the facilities were untouched. Abqaiq was struck 18 times, with five hits on crude-stabilization towers and 11 on spheroids.
. The success hit rate of the attack was extremely high, only four projectiles out of 30 did not reach their targets and all the others were totally effective.
. Despite the plants running 24/24 7/7, no casualty has been reported.
. The attack exposed seemingly glaring vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia’s defense capabilities
despite having spent hundreds of billions of dollars on weaponry in recent years.
Saudi Arabia has already taken delivery of Patriot-3 hit- to-kill missiles bought years ago and designed to defend against cruise and ballistic missiles. The Kingdom earlier this year finalized a long-sought after contract for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Thaad missile interceptors designed to intercept ballistic missiles at higher altitudes. It’s not known whether any Thaad batteries have been delivered yet, but the neighbouring United Arab Emirates have THAAD installed and operating since 2016.
. The attacks did not originate from Yemen located in the south of the Arabian Peninsula but from the North- East, maybe form Iran but much more likely from the Iraqi territory. U.S. and Saudi analyses of the attack have described the strike as complex, involving a mix of low-flying drones and cruise missiles coming from the north.
. The Houthis who have claimed the responsibility of the attack are unanimously considered not to master the know-how and technology needed to operate such sophisticated armament in such a coordinated attack. Moreover, they are not known to have the logistical capabilities of such an attack in Iraq where they are usually not present. Saudi and U.S. officials confirmed that the drones and missiles used had never before been deployed by Iranian proxy groups in the past. M
. Saudi Arabia stopped short of accusing Iran while Mike Pompeo immediately pointed fingers at Iran.
. Iran has denied any involvement in the attack, challenging Saudi Arabia and the US to demonstrate their involvement.
. Iran warned Saudi Arabia and the USA that any attack against Iran would lead to an all-out war in the region.
. During a news conference on the Friday before the attack, President Donald Trump signalled he was trying to avoid a military conflict. “I will say I think the sanctions work, and the military
would work,” Trump told reporters. “But that’s a very severe form of winning.”
. However, after the attack, the US decided to send a “moderate” number of American troops to the Middle East and additional missile defense capabilities to Saudi Arabia in response to the
attack. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said last Friday that the decision came at the request of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and represented a “first step” in the U.S. response.
Amongst the questions that remain unanswered :
. Saudi Arabia strategic Defense capabilities
Considering the amounts of money spent by Saudi Arabia on its military – the third largest budget in the world – the availability of the Patriot anti-missile technology for many years, the probable availability of the THAAD anti-ballistic missiles capabilities, the proximity of a declared military enemy in a region under constant tension, and the crucial strategic importance of the oil facilities that have been hit, How come the attack was so precise and so successfull ?
According to military experts, no single defence system is able to defend against a threat like the combination of systems launched against Saudi Arabia last week, however a layered system of
defensive capabilities as the one available in Saudi Arabia should have mitigated the risk of swarms of drones or other types attacks coming from Iran or elsewhere.
Moreover, this area of the world is under constant surveillance not only by the Saudi and GCC countries military, but also by the Civil Aviation Authorities, America’s NORAD, Israel’s surveillance and anti-missile defence and the vast array of civil and military satellite systems watching the area, giving ample warning ahead of time and usually triggering the defence systems.
How come none of the drones and Cruise missiles have been destroyed ?
Even a 20 % hit rate would have been considered to be a success by military standards
considering the defence systems in place.
The impression here is that the Saudi facilities were left completely defenceless, despite their strategic importance.
. Missiles of Unknown Origin
An intriguing development is that no one is divulging the source of the launch of the Missiles and Drones.
Once again, this area of the world is probably one of the most monitored theatre of operations in the world and drones and missiles do fly for several minutes before reaching their targets, leaving an unavoidable trail of radar echoes on multiple surveillance systems.
Military and civil aviation authorities as well as air traffic controllers are all equipped to calculate instantly, in real time and in three dimensions the origin, the course and the point of impact of any flying object with only very few trajectory datapoint.
That includes the military of the Gulf countries, America, Israel, Russia, France, the UK and probably China as well in addition to the constant civil and military satellites surveillance.
When it comes to the military and defence strategies, the one single priority is to define within the minimum of time and with extreme precision the precise location of the origin of the launch of any projectile so as to be capable of destroying the launching facilities….
The multi-layered, 30 drones and missiles used in last Saturday’s attack on Saudi Arabia have flown for several minutes before hitting their targets and have left multiple traces on multiple tracking systems that all have the capability to immediately determine where the launch location was.
How come no one, neither America, nor Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, nor any of the powers that have the information independently is disclosing where the attack originated from ?
If America or Saudi Arabia are blaming Iran and have the proof that the attack was launched from the Iranian territory, they would make that information public to substantiate their claim that Iran is responsible.
If America or Saudi Arabia are blaming Iran and have the proof that the attack was launched from a portion of the Iraqi territory that is know to be under the control of Iran or Iran-backed militias , they would make that information public to substantiate their claim that Iran is responsible.
Iran is claiming that it is NOT responsible for the attack.
Had the location of origin been ascertained and disclosed publicly establishing that the attacks could have only been carried out by Iran, then Mohammad Zarif would not be in a position to deny the involvement of Iran in the attack.
“I know that we didn’t do it,” he told CNN. He later said in a post on Twitter that it was “curious”
the Saudis “retaliated” against Yemen when Iran was blamed for the attacks referring to the subsequent bombarding of Houthis positions in Yemen by the Saudi Aviation the day after the attack. “It is clear that even the Saudis themselves don’t believe the fiction of Iranian involvement.” Zarif Tweeted.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also warned that any U.S. or Saudi strike on his country in response to the attacks on the Kingdom’s critical oil facilities would lead to and “all-out war.”
If the attacks originated from a location in Iraq that could be under the control or where many other parties could be present militarily, then Mike Pompeo’s claim that Iran is certainly behind the attack would no longer stand.
Interestingly enough, it took five days for the Allies of America to address the topic and condemn Iran and their official statement was ” that Iran was most likely behind the attack”
Mohamad Zarif, like most other powers probably knows exactly where the location of origin is.
Iran is probably waiting for someone to make a false claim to demonstrate that they are lying.
It is therefore most likely that the complex cruise missiles and drones attack originated from an Iraqi area where several parties to the Iraqi conflict, including the US or even Israel, could possibly have operated from.
The US has invested heavily in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and still maintain troops over there despite the commitment fo Donald Trump to withdraw the military form Iraq.
The U.S. spent $20 billion between 2003 and 2011 on the Iraqi military, but it wasn’t enough to stop the rise of the Islamic State group and its attacks against Iraq, which required spending another $5 billion.
Expenditure on U.S. troops in Iraq had gone down from $150 billion a year in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019, still a significant amount and Iran could very well argue that the attack was launched form territories that are more often controlled by the US or other nations than by the pro Iranian militias.
. Does Iran benefit from such an attack ?
Tensions between the United States and Iran have increased markedly when Donald Trump withdrew unilaterally from the Joint nuclear accord in May last year.
There was no particular action on the part of Iran to justify the US President decision to pull out of the accord and to re-instate sanctions on Iran. Indeed, the financial breather given to Iran by the lifting of the sanctions following the nuclear Accord in 2015 has given it ample room to expand its destabilising activities outside of Iran, particularly in Yemen were the Iran-backed Houthis killed the reconciliation process after the toppling of the dictator Saleh and in Lebanon with the succeeding of Hezbollah in controlling Lebanon’s political landscape.
Since May 2018, the tension increased markedly in the Gulf area with several acts of wars regularly faulted on Iran but often raising questions in terms of their true origin.
The motives of Donald Trump in escalating the tension with Iran are not always clear although we have highlighted one of the mots important objective of Donald Trump as President of the United States in our articles THE NEXT WAR and THE LAST WAR.: a final and global peace in the Middle East and that global peace may require the end of the Iranian Islamic regime and of its satellites.
But besides this potential strategic will, an objective analysis of the situation doesn’t truly justify the escalation engineered by Donald Trump himself.
Iran is indeed a factor of destabilisation in the Middle East through its proxy militias in Yemen and in Lebanon, but at no stage has Iran or its proxies constituted a systemic risk to the world peace.
Most of the world has given up on Lebanon falling into the hands of Hezbollah and the war in Yemen is a localised event that has indeed a strategic importance for Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, but is irrelevant to the rest of the world.
On the other hand, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are PRECISELY what constitutes a real systemic risk for the world peace and containing them was precisely what the 2015 accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was all about, and from every account, Iran had been respecting its side of the deal.
It looks therefore strange that Donald Trump should put the maximum of pressure on Iran for its “non-essential” activities while allowing it to exit the constraints of the 2015 accord on the “strategic” nuclear activities.
Escalating the tension and precipitating Iran in an economic crisis would realistically not make the Iranian regime fall or even change its tack on regional activities it has been investing in for decades at a time where it is starting to harvest the fruits of its investments.
Hezbollah has gained control of Lebanon while nothing can happen in Yemen without the Shia Houthis rebels. At this stage, what Iran needs is time, not war !
Washington’s allies have tried to calm the game and sustain the Nuclear accord but they have failed miserably while it looks like America is escalating the tension to reach a stage a military confrontation with Iran.
The Houthis themselves were in negotiation with the American administration for a peace process in Yemen only one week ago.
In the latest attack on the Saudi oil field, it is difficult to see what Iran has to gain.
Why would Iran attack Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure when it risks sparking a conflict more damaging than the sanctions it faces and undermine the goodwill necessary for a future deal?
Some analysts speculate that In response to unprecedented sanctions on its oil and gas sector, Iran is escalating attacks on oil and energy assets in the Persian Gulf using a brinkmanship strategy that aims to force the United States to shift its policies.
Iranian actions included the retaliatory seizure of oil tankers following the interdiction of Iranian-flagged vessels, the harassment of maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf, the downing of a U.S. drone in June, a drone strike against two of Saudi Arabia’s East-West pipeline pumping stations in May, and an attack that caused a fire at that country’s Shaybah oil field’s processing complex in August.
Iran would also be accelerating the country’s nuclear activity following the suspension of the nuclear deal since it would increase Iranian leverage for negotiations that Tehran considers are ultimately inevitable.
According to this thesis, Tehran is calculating that America is not ready to go to war as President Trump is entering an election year, that Israel has a weak Government – in fact no Government at all – and that these aggressive actions will ultimately yield more favorable negotiating terms, facilitating the removal of sanctions, once Iran perceives that conditions are right for talks.
Some commentators also consider that last week-end attack follow the missed opportunity to take between President ROUHANI and President TRUMP following the surprise French attempt to trigger a meeting at the last G7 meeting August.
However, most diplomatic sources confirm that it is the Iranian side that refused to meet as they did not trust the true intentions of Donald Trump’s offer to meet.
What does this mean for the United States’ strategy in its confrontation with Iran?
The official line of the United States is that it remains committed to a sanctions-first strategy in dealing with Iran as Washington tries to force Tehran to abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear programs and its support for proxy forces across the Middle East.
In a Sept. 18 tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump hinted at a “substantial” increase in sanctions on Iran within 48 hours, and the State Department has repeatedly reiterated that sanctions are the primary U.S. tool to try to alter Iranian behavior. On Sept. 20, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on Iran’s central bank.
Donald Trump has displayed a clear reticence to striking Iran militarily in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. His claim that “restraint is a display of force” can only work once. If a second attack is perpetrated, than America will “have to” intervene.
Besides the official line, the United States might be assessing that military retaliation is necessary to punish Iran and deter against future attacks. Washington is also certainly considering joint operations with Saudi Arabia in which the Saudis would lead retaliatory actions against Iran aided by U.S. intelligence, targeting and surveillance.
Working in a coalition with Saudi Arabia places the burden on regional U.S. partners to lead the strike, which is in line with the preferred U.S. strategy in which regional partners lead and the United States remains at arm’s length from the action.
Potential reciprocal targets in response to the Abqaiq and Khurais strikes include targeted strikes on Iran’s oil and gas sector or on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities, which could deter future Iranian strikes in addition to serving as punishment.
Air strikes on Iran’s Navy, Aviation, Revolutionary Guard Corps and Nuclear facilities would not involve troops on the ground and could well be justified by the fact that Iran attacked Saudi Arabia first and endangered the world oil supplies.
Aerial attacks of that nature would be much more damaging to the Islamic regime than any kind of sanctions while leaving America and the West little harmed.
Is Iran really in a position to take such a risk ?
Until now, and if it is true that Iran has retaliated to the sanctions through various actions, it has not provoked the escalation itself and even in this last episode of tension, has just sent three messages, one of them extremely officially through the Swiss embassy in Tehran :
. Iran has nothing to do with this attack
. Iran does not want a military conflict in the region
. but If Iran is attacked, it will be an all-out war
Anyone vaguely familiar with the situation in Lebanon knows full well that Irans’ proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, does NOT want a war in the region or with Israel. There again, the official line of Hezbollah is that it does not want a war, but that if Iran or Lebanon are attacked they will launch an all out war against Israel.
Hezbollah knows full well that is case of a war with Israel, it is likely to be completely destroyed and all its efforts of the past twenty years annihilated precisely at the time where it has finally gained control of Lebanon thanks to a portion of the Christian population.
With the help and the funding of Iran, Hezbollah has succeeded at gaining control of the country and its institutions without having to fight militarily.
A military confrontation would make them lose all the gains they have made in the past.
For Iran itself, an all-out war with the world and its gulf neighbours would be devastating for the Mollah’s regime.
The population is already extremely opposed to the hard liners of the regime, hence the ousting of Ahmadinejad and his replacement by the more moderate Rouhani in the past years, and the recent economic crisis is creating massive discontent.
A war would ruin the Iranian economy, destroy the infrastructure of the country including its oil and nuclear facilities, destroy its naval and aerial forces and weaken considerably the backbone of the regime, the corps of Revolutionary guards.
Can the Iranian Islamic Revolution survive two conflicts and two destruction of the country in only one generation and its forty years of existence ?
Are the Mollahs so desperate that they are prepare to risk everything on an All-IN Bet agaisnt someone like Donald Trump who may anyway disappear in a year time ?
The Persian culture has always been one of patience and restraint !
What Iran needs today is time, not a war !
Why gamble everything today ?
Does anyone in Iran believe that last week-end’s attack on Saudi Arabia could make Donald Trump change his strategy against Iran, come to a negotiation table and remove sanctions ?????
Does anyone in Iran believes that the attack on Saudi oil installation that did not cause one single death will suddenly make Saudi Arabia forfeit all the efforts they have made over the past 5 years in Yemen and suddenly accept a power sharing agreement with the Shia Houthis rebels ?
What is at stake in Yemen is not the country itself but the questioning of the Sunni rule over the shiite populations in the Arabian Peninsula, which comprise the Eastern cost – and oil fields – of Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, parts of the UAE, one fifth of Kuwait population and Shiite tribes across the whole peninsula.
The issues at a stake are much more strategic than the resolution of a power sharing agreement. Any negotiation on a power sharing agreement is a success for Iran and a long term danger for all the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.
Does anyone in the world seriously believe that Iran is ready to gamble with its own survival simply to get to a negotiation table in Yemen ?
Last Week’s escalation can only lead to War, not to Negotiations
Boris Johnson was quick to call for a new deal with Iran and was joined by his European counterparts, hoping to calm the situation and bring Donald Trump to a negotiating table, a last ditch attempt to avoid a global war.
Saudi Arabia hasn’t clearly signalled its preference regarding a unilateral response, coordinated action with the United States, or the adoption of a wait-and-see approach, but clearly Riyadh is hesitant to strike Iran, which could initiate a major and direct military conflict with Iran.
However, it does not have much choice, particularly if suddenly another attack takes place.
As we have been writing now for many months, the dynamics in place are leading nowhere but to a global war in the region and last week’s attack on Saudi Arabia is just another piece in the global puzzle that justifies the war
Saudi Arabia cannot and will not go to war without the military support of America.
If a war begins, it will begin as a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and then America will be called in to help Saudi Arabia and secure the flow of oil in the straits of Hormuz.
If Iran is attacked, it will action its proxies all over the Middle East including in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah against Israel. Hassan Nasrallah has already announced his intention to side immediately with Iran and attack Israel.
The war will become regional a with a triple objective, bringing the Iranian Revolution regime to its knees, eradicating Hezbollah from Lebanon and winning the battle over the Houthis rebels in Yemen.
The political icing on the cake will be a global peace plan for the Middle East and the birth of a Palestinian Nation.
How about Israel
Israel views Iran as its greatest regional adversary. If the United States and Saudi Arabia do not respond to these attacks in a manner that satisfies Israel, the latter could intensify its operations against Iran’s missile and nuclear programs and allied regional militias including Hezbollah.
Despite the recent Israeli elections and the imminent formation of a new government, the next Israeli government will still perceive Iran as its primary threat and maintain its existing operations against Iran-allied militias in the region.
A potential shift in the closeness between Israel and Washington, and thus less direct Israeli influence on White House decision-making, is one potential shift the Israeli elections could have on this issue.
The second major shift in the Israeli situation is that the bloc of Arab deputies has become the third largest political block in Israel and the one that will make the new king by siding with one or the other main Israeli parties.
This has extremely important and lasting consequences for the future of Israel
A common war and a common victory through a Middle Eastern peace process will make that evolution less dangerous for the survival of Israel.