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Foreign Policy

An Escalation of the US-Iran Confrontation

Sep 24, 2019
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

In the early morning of Sept. 14, two Saudi Aramco oil facilities were attacked by drones. In shock at the explosions and smoke, stakeholders accused one another. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility soon after the attack, the United States and Saudi Arabia suggested that Iran was the culprit. U.S. President Donald Trump even announced that the he was sure the Iranians had perpetrated the attack and that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” and ready to respond. Iran, on the other hand, flatly denied the charge. Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, went so far as to say that the attack had been Yemen’s reciprocal response to bombardment by Saudi-led allied forces in recent years.

It seems after the mutual accusations that the truth of the attack may well be smothered Rashomon-style, like the Syrian chemical weapons incident and the tanker attack in the Persian Gulf.

Unlike the previous tanker attack, the target this time was not a ship flying a national flag. Rather it struck important oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. The attack instantly cut Saudi oil production by 5.7 million barrels per day, almost 50 percent of the country’s daily capacity and 5 percent of the global supply. Such an unprecedented attack naturally caused an immediate and drastic rise of international oil prices. London’s Brent futures surged 20 percent at one point the next day and peaked at $71.95 per barrel, the largest single-day rise in the price of crude oil since the 1991 Gulf War.

Beyond the short-term, panic-induced increase in prices, the attack pushed the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Since the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — in May last year, relations have taken a dramatic downturn. The Trump administration regards Iran as the primary security threat in the Middle East and has roped in regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. To contain Iran’s regional influence and research in ballistic missile technologies, the U.S. has launched a maximum-pressure campaign in an attempt to force a new deal that the U.S. finds more satisfactory. Ranging from a financial blockade and restrictions on oil exports to carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf and sanctions on Iranian leaders —including the supreme leader — the effort is designed to cow Iran into submission. However, contrary to American expectations, resilient Iran has not surrendered but rather launched counterattacks in the form of diplomatic moves, military exercises and step-by-step withdrawal from different aspects of the JCPOA.

Finding it difficult to back down, Trump recently fired his national security adviser, John Bolton, a hawk who has pushed for the use of force against Iran. That sacking was considered by some international media as the first victory for Iran in the standoff.

While people had begun to hope that U.S.-Iran relations would turn for the better — and even Trump himself talked about setting up a meeting with his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York — the explosive attack (both figuratively and literally) on Saudi oil facilities was made, triggering a series of mutual accusations and threats of military action. After Trump’s “locked and loaded” remark on Twitter, Iranian senior military officers claimed that Tehran was prepared for an “all-out war.” Amid the saber rattling, an analysis by a Canadian capital markets company described the attack as a “turning point in the region’s protracted cold war” that had pushed the region “closer to military confrontation.”

Besides increasing tensions between the U.S and Iran, the attack may have repercussions on the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia and even on its Yemen policy. According to the U.N., the war in Yemen has resulted in at the least 7,290 civilian deaths and created an enormous humanitarian disaster. Nearly 80 percent of the Yemeni population urgently needs humanitarian aid and protection, including urgent food assistance for 10 million people. Since the start of military operations against the Houthi rebels in March 2015, the Saudis have expended a lot of money and military might there. The oilfield attack could increase the number of voices against war and spark greater demands for the withdrawal of troops — essentially pushing for a readjustment of the Saudi diplomatic style.

Trump said Saudi Arabia will have to pay the bill if the U.S. military is sent to teach Iran a lesson. In that case, the Saudis will find their right foot in the swamp of war with Iran before it has taken the left one out of the quagmire of Yemen.

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