After Attacks on Saudi Oil, Time for Trump to Strike Iran's Proxies

Opinion: The administration needs to escalate maximum pressure beyond sanctions

Smoke from attack on Saudi oil facility / Twitter
September 16, 2019

The attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities on Saturday should remind Washington of two points: First, Middle Eastern oil still matters to the United States, even if Americans need less of it, and second, Iran is encircling Saudi Arabia through proxies, posing a potentially existential threat to a crucial—albeit troublesome—ally.

On the first point, oil prices soared on Monday and will likely remain at a higher cost per barrel for weeks after armed drones or cruise missiles set ablaze Abqaiq, the world's largest oil processing facility and crude oil stabilization plant, and Khurais, the second-largest oil field in Saudi Arabia.

The attacks forced the Saudis to cut production by some 5.7 million barrels a day, about half of their output and more than 5 percent of the global daily oil supply. More important, however, the price rose because of fear. It is clear Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, and thus its production and exports, are vulnerable to attacks.

At home, the prospect of Americans paying more at the pump may help dispel the myth that, because the United States is less reliant on importing Middle Eastern oil, Washington can withdraw from the region. Like it or not, there is a global price that affects American companies and consumers. And, more broadly, some of the world's biggest economies and America's biggest trading partners still have unquenchable thirsts for Middle Eastern oil. Someone who argues the United States should not care about Saudi Arabia's oil must also be prepared to argue that the nation should not care about how the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese economies perform.

On the second point, American officials are now saying the attack likely came from Iraq or Iran itself. Indeed, there is growing evidence that an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq carried out the attacks, not the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Yes, the Houthis quickly claimed responsibility, but that does not mean much. In May, the Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a major Saudi oil pipeline, only to have American officials later conclude that an Iranian-backed group in Iraq was behind the assault. If Iraqi militants were responsible, then the Houthis were providing them cover, indicating the Yemeni rebels are full proxies of Iran, willing to put themselves at risk for their Iranian patrons.

Geography also works against the Houthis' narrative. The Houthis have primarily used drones to attack Saudi targets near the Yemeni border, but the state-owned Saudi Aramco facilities targeted Saturday were at least 620 miles away in northeastern Saudi Arabia, closer to southern Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias operate. Just as Iran supplies the Houthis with drones and missiles, Tehran provides its Iraqi proxies with increasingly advanced military support.

There are also Kuwaiti reports that a drone overflew Kuwait from Iraq shortly before the attacks, further undermining the Houthis' claim of responsibility. While those reports are unconfirmed, the Kuwaiti cabinet ordered military leaders to tighten security around key sites after the attacks.

An American official told Reuters the evidence shows the attacks came from the northwest rather than from the south—that is, from Yemen—and the Saudis see signs that cruise missiles were used in the attacks. The Houthis claimed they used 10 drones. "There's no doubt that Iran is responsible for this," the official said. "No matter how you slice it, there's no escaping it. There's no other candidate."

And do not forget that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks and tweeted there is "no evidence" they came from Yemen.

Regardless of who launched the attacks, Iran is ultimately responsible. Whether it was the Houthis or Iraqi militiamen does not change the broader strategic point: Iran is surrounding Saudi Arabia with proxies. To the north the Saudis see hostile Iraqi militias; to the south they see hostile Yemeni rebels; and, of course, to the east, in and across the Persian Gulf, they see hostile Iranian soldiers. Tehran seems to be putting itself in position to wage a war of attrition against Riyadh, wearing down the latter's will, resources, and infrastructure through attacks like the ones on Saturday. Relying on proxies allows Iran to keep its own people further away from conflict and to give itself some plausible deniability. Moreover, it is effective to spend relatively little money to build, fund, and arm militias while forcing the enemy to spend much more on defense. But this strategy only works if no one retaliates against Iran to deter and impose costs on its leaders.

Iran is not only trying to hurt Saudi Arabia—it is also testing President Trump's resolve to continue his campaign of maximum pressure against the regime. Trump did not respond when Iran terrorized international oil tankers and shot down an American drone this summer. And now the president seems to be pursuing negotiations with Iran's regime over its nuclear program. Tehran sees a green light on an open road.

Trump needs to respond to Iran's attacks, as he indicated he would do on Twitter. But the assaults also show the United States needs to make a committed effort to counter Iranian power in the Middle East by targeting Iran's proxies across the region. That effort has been missing from U.S. strategy for years. This means imposing more economic sanctions, supporting allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, keeping a limited number of American soldiers in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, working with various Shiite factions on the ground—even some nasty ones—understanding that many of them hate Iran, and, yes, launching military strikes against Iranian bases and Iranian-backed proxies when necessary. There is no need to hit Iran itself. There are plenty of viable targets, and, if history is any guide, the regime in Iran will not go punch for punch with the United States.

Prematurely negotiating with Iran will give in to the regime's belligerence. Trump's campaign of maximum pressure is working, and he needs to continue it. But that campaign must go beyond economic sanctions, which are necessary but insufficient, and target Iran's imperialist expansion across the Middle East.