The week in US-Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions, explained

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on September 19, 2019. Pompeo traveled days after the Saudi Aramco attack which the US blames Iran for. | US Department of State/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It looked like Trump was going to bomb Iran over Saudi Arabia. Now it doesn’t.

If you’re worried that the United States will go to war with Iran, you’re not the only one. But based on the events of this week, there’s much less to worry about — at least for now.

Last Saturday, two vital oil facilities belonging to Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Aramco were attacked by what appear to be 10 drones and nearly 20 missiles. The assault shut down roughly half of the company’s production, hitting the global oil market hard and triggering the largest oil price spike in roughly 30 years.

The Trump administration almost immediately said Iran had launched the assault — even though the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen had already claimed responsibility for the strikes — and shared some evidence it said proved its stance. Iran expectedly denied any involvement, but that didn’t lower the temperature of the situation.

President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that the US was “locked and loaded” for a retaliatory strike to defend Saudi Arabia, while others in his Cabinet said what occurred was an “act of war.”

Despite the administration’s consistent antagonism toward Iran, that kind of rhetoric from Trump was still surprising, for two reasons: 1) the US doesn’t have a formal treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia and thus is not required to do anything whatsoever in response to an attack against it; and 2) Trump campaigned on getting the US out of needless wars in the Middle East, not starting new ones.

Iran’s top diplomat responded to Trump’s bellicose statement, warning of an “all-out war” should the US strike the Islamic Republic.

All of that is scary, of course. But it increasingly looks like it’s just a bunch of tough talk that won’t actually lead to a major conflict.

Trump has so far rejected plans from some of his closest advisers and top political allies to bomb Iran. Instead, it looks like the president has opted to increase sanctions on Tehran, strengthen a global coalition to confront the country politically and economically, and perhaps launch some covert operations for good measure.

And on Friday, the Pentagon announced it would send hundreds of US troops, along with air and missile defense equipment, to Saudi Arabia as part of a “defensive” move.

All of that’s a far cry from full-scale war.

So while the situation definitely could’ve led to one of the worst confrontations in modern memory, the chances of that happening remain small.

What we know about the attack on Aramco in Saudi Arabia

It’s worth keeping in mind that not all of the information about the Saudi Aramco attack has come out. At this point it’s mostly America and Saudi Arabia’s word against Iran’s, and the current governments of those three countries are not exactly known for their commitment to honesty and transparency.

That’s why it’s worth waiting to draw any conclusions until we have all the facts.

With that caveat in place, here is the evidence that has been put forth so far to back up the claim that Iran carried out the attacks.

The US released satellite images of the attacked area on Sunday, showing 17 points of impact on the facilities. Those pictures purport to show that most of the missiles came not from the south, which is where the Houthis in Yemen are located in relation to the attack sites, but rather the north, which is where Iran and Iraq are located. However, one complication is that it’s possible some of the missiles came from the west, so the matter isn’t so clear cut.

Satellite view of the attacked Saudi Arabian oil plants.Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019/Gallo Images via Getty Images
Smoke billows from Saudi Aramco’s oil processing plants in Abqaiq and Khurais, Saudi Arabia.

US investigators are also looking at recovered missile circuit boards, satellite photos, and more to see if that will help determine the weapons’ trajectories more definitively.

And Saudi Arabia’s Col. Turki al-Maliki, a representative for the country’s defense ministry, gave a presentation on Wednesday in which he displayed on a table as proof of Iran’s role in the attack. He said Riyadh came to its conclusion based on the direction the missiles came from.

“This attack was not against Aramco or Saudi Arabia,” he added. “It was an assault on the international community.” However, he stopped short of saying the Islamic Republic launched the assault on its own. In other words, he was saying that Iran is involved somehow — and that the weapons may have even been mounted in Iran — but what remains unclear is if some high-level official in Tehran ordered the strike.

Missiles allegedly used in the Saudi Aramco attack last week on a metal table during a presentation.Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on September 18, 2019, shows displayed fragments of what the Saudi defence ministry spokesperson said were Iranian cruise missiles and drones recovered from the attack site that targeted Saudi Aramco’s facilities, during a press conference in Riyadh.

Not everyone agrees with that view, though, including some staunch American allies. Japan’s government said this week that it has yet to see any concrete evidence that Iran is responsible in any way. And while France has yet to weigh in, leadership there said it will send its own investigators to assess what happened. Neither response was a shock, as both Paris and Tokyo have strived in recent years to maintain strong diplomatic relations with Riyadh.

What’s more, missile experts say at least some of the weapons used include the Quds-1, a Houthi rebel made and used projectile. That means it’s possible the Houthis used the projectiles on their own without Iranian assistance. The Houthis say they developed the Quds-1 indigenously, and they’ve launched cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia before, including at an airport. Pompeo, however, told reporters Wednesday something different: “The equipment used is unknown to be in the Houthi arsenal.”

It’s of course possible that Iran played a role in the Saudi Aramco attack. After all, Iran backs the Houthis, though the rebel group isn’t extremely desperate for financial and military assistance. And Iran has increasingly made provocative moves in order to compel the US to remove crushing sanctions on its economy, such as seizing oil tankers. One could imagine that attacking Saudi Arabia’s most important export was Tehran’s way of upping the pressure.

But until more evidence comes out — and the Trump administration aims to give a presentation on this very issue at the UN next week — the extent of Iran’s involvement isn’t clear.

Trump thinks about bombing Iran, then criticizes those who want to

So without all the evidence yet, the Trump administration has stayed clear of threatening war with Iran, right? Of course not.

Two days after the attack, Trump tweeted that the US was “locked and loaded depending on verification” and would wait for Saudi Arabia’s word on “under what terms we would proceed.”

Trump’s use of the phrase “locked and loaded” seemingly showed an openness to kickstart another war in the Middle East. But threatening to bomb a country is kind of Trump’s thing when something bad happens.

Before he began his nuclear negotiations with North Korea, Trump vowed in August 2017 to rain down “fire and fury” on the country if it continued to test missiles that could hit America with nukes. And in July 2018, he put out an all-caps tweet saying Iran “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” if the regime in Tehran continued to make threatening statements toward the US.

Of course, Trump didn’t follow through on any of those threats. But he clearly sees speaking in overly harsh tones as a way to deter an adversary from escalating matters and calm tense situations.

Trump received support from many in the Washington foreign policy establishment for attacking Iran if it was determined to be behind the Saudi assault. Even some of his usual critics advocated for a military response.

Michael Morell, the former acting CIA director during the Obama administration, pushed for force. “We need to respond here, particularly if the attack occurred from Iran,” he said during a presentation at George Mason University this week. “That is an act of war, not just a terrorist attack. I think we have to deter Iran.”

Even Martin Indyk, a former Obama administration Middle East peace negotiator, tweeted on Wednesday that “if we’re not prepared to stand by Saudi Arabia after what sure looks like an Iranian-sponsored attack, that will have profound consequences for all our relationships in the Middle East. Including with Iran.”

The administration has clearly prepared military options. Last Monday, NBC News reported, military advisers presented Trump with a plan to strike Iranian oil or military facilities (among other potential responses) during a national security meeting. But Trump pushed back. “The president, seeking a narrowly focused response that wouldn’t draw the US into broader military conflict with Iran, asked for more options,” the story continued.

That’s not overly surprising. When his top aides tried to increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan back in 2017, Trump resisted their escalation plans for months. And even though the US was minutes from attacking Iran for downing a US surveillance drone in June, the president called it off because he said it wasn’t “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Trump has received heat for that decision, even from some of his most loyal political allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). After tweeting Wednesday that Trump’s choice not to attack Iran over the summer “was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” the president responded: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” (Yes, it looks like important, official national security debates happen on Twitter now, too.)

So in a matter of two days Trump went from looking like he would strike Iran to pushing back against those that want to strike Iran; such is the whiplash in the Trump era.

Trump will continue to put pressure on Iran

If Trump won’t use force, then, what will he opt to do? It looks like there are four main options, which aren’t mutually exclusive.

First, Trump ordered the Treasury Department on Wednesday to place even more sanctions on Iran — a move he naturally announced on Twitter. It’s unclear what more the US can really hit, though, as it has already penalized all of Iran’s most important sectors, primarily its oil production.

Even some experts are perplexed. “They could start lashing out at other countries with secondary sanctions,” Neil Bhatiya, an expert on security and economics at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, tweeted on Wednesday. “But we’ve basically hit most sectors of the Iranian economy.” Whatever the action, though, it will likely further sink Iran’s financial prospects.

Second, the administration seeks to get other countries to work together to push back on Iran’s aggressive actions. “We are working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them,” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. “And this is what needs to happen.”

It appears to be happening already. On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates said it would join a US-led international effort to patrol sea lanes near Iran to protect shipping. That’s important since it’s widely believed Iran bombed oil tankers and continues to seize foreign vessels, including a British tanker in July.

Third, as the administration announced on Friday, hundreds of US troops are on their way to Saudi Arabia in an effort to deter further Iranian aggression. The decision is meant as a defensive measure, but it could become offensive if Tehran continues its attacks.

Fourth, it looks like Trump is weighing a cyberattack on Iran. That would allow him to severely damage parts of Iran’s oil sector, for example, without having to launch bombs at it. While it could prove effective and harmful to Tehran’s economy, that move would most likely be seen as less escalatory than a military operation.

Trump has already had success with cyberattacks. In June, the president authorized — and the government executed — a plan that impeded the Islamic Republic’s ability to target tankers in nearby waters. Iran still struggled even two months afterward to get some of the computers back online.

One could imagine that a future US cyberattack on Iran would be much more potent, though, causing more problems for the regime in Tehran. However, the secrecy surrounding attacks like that and their covert nature means the public likely won’t know about it until many months later — or if the president decides to tweet about it.

The upshot of this two- or three-step plan is that a full-blown war seems off the table for now. That’s a good sign for those who don’t want to see a conflict that could become much worse than Iraq. But what’s clear from this past week is that US-Iran enmity isn’t anywhere close to over, and at the moment is only escalating. So the situation is relatively stable now, but there’s a chance it could get a whole lot worse over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *