World

The Attack on Saudi Arabia Is the Crisis Iran Was Waiting For

Satellite view of the Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc/Handout via Reuters)
Its precision munitions are capable of inflicting massive amounts of damage.

A  sophisticated drone and cruise-missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil-processing facility on Saturday has sent shock waves through the world’s oil markets and leaves the U.S. and allies at a crossroads about how to deal with a growing threat from Iran and its supporters. This is the crisis Iran has been waiting for, with pro-regime media tweeting about the “unprecedented attack” and parroting the threats of Yemen’s Houthi rebels against Saudi oil infrastructure.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Iran was behind the attack, and U.S. officials have released satellite images and spoken to media about details of the sophisticated assault. The attack showcases Iran’s precision weapons guidance. This is a threat that has been increasing for years. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act apprised Congress of Iran’s ballistic-missile program and dronesIsrael also warned about similar threats in early September, asserting that Iran was transferring precision missile guidance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran has been boasting about its drone, cruise-missile, and precision munitions since a large drill it undertook in March.

However, Tehran has also been stymied in how to employ its arsenal, weighing the responses it wants to give in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran deal, in May 2018. For a year Iran used its good-cop, bad-cop routine, threatening to walk away from provisions of the deal if European and other countries didn’t work to get around Washington’s sanctions. But in May Tehran changed tactics. As sanctions took a bite, Tehran intimated that if Iran couldn’t export oil, neither would others. Washington has accused Iran of being behind the sabotage of six ships in May and June as well as the downing of a U.S. drone in June. Rockets also fell near U.S. bases in Iraq. Iran has also worked through its Houthi rebel allies in Yemen to supply know-how behind drone and air-defense technology. Pompeo says Iran is behind at least 100 attacks originating in Yemen.

All this was window dressing for the more massive long-range attack that was to come this week. Two previous long-range attacks had targeted oil facilities west of Riyadh and near the border with the United Arab Emirates. In the latter attack, Iran’s Press TV claimed ten Yemeni drones had been responsible. The early hours of September 14 showed fires and explosions at Abqaiq. Satellite images revealed damage to almost 20 buildings, including liquified-natural-gas storage tanks. The damage wasn’t chaotic, as it would have been if someone tossed explosives and hoped they would hit their mark. Rather it was precise; one image shows four storage tanks hit in the same location.

This level of precision is important. As salient was the ability of a force purported to include dozens of drones and cruise missiles to evade air-defense systems in eastern Saudi Arabia near Bahrain. This should be an area, not far from the U.S. naval base in Bahrain and the Al-Udeid base in Qatar, as well as U.S. bases in the UAE and Kuwait, that would be well defended. Whether the attack originated directly from Iran or from Iran-backed Houthis, either scenario shows how extremely proficient Iran and its allies have become with drones and missiles. This is an indigenous weapons program that outpaces Iran’s nearest neighbors, with the exception of Israel. It is a threat that requires U.S. air defense and radar to help confront. The larger question for the Trump administration is not just about defending allies, but also about whether it wants to try to deter Iran. Despite warnings since May that Iranian actions would meet with retaliation, Washington has been reticent to retaliate militarily, preferring a campaign of “maximum pressure.” It is hard to ignore the Iranian regime’s pronouncements on September 10 that the departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton showed that the U.S. had failed in its pressure campaign. It is also hard to believe that the sophisticated Abqaiq attack was planned in only four days.

Tehran would have known that an unprecedented attack on key Saudi Arabian oil facilities by so many drones would raise eyebrows about claims that the poor and isolated Houthi rebels were behind it. The attack sends a clear message: This can get worse; end the sanctions and don’t risk the world’s oil supply. Iran thinks that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies won’t risk a conflict, and the Iranians think they called the Trump administration’s bluff in June. September 14 was a gamble but also a clear message felt across the Middle East. The era of Iran’s sophisticated precision-guided drone and cruise-missile attacks is here.

Most Popular

Elections

Put Up or Shut Up on These Accusations, Hillary

Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and ... Read More
Culture

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Defense That Doesn’t Work

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that the “perfect phone call” defense of Trump and Ukraine doesn’t work. As Andy and I discussed on his podcast this week, the “perfect” defense allows the Democrats to score easy points by establishing that people in the administration ... Read More
PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
National Review

Farewell

Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More