General regional consensus that 14 September attack was linked to Iran, though Saudi has not directly blamed Tehran.
Both US and Saudi Arabia seemingly want to avoid a direct military conflict that would be costly and expose vulnerability to Saudi’s energy critical infrastructure.
Trump likely to limit response to increasing sanctions after calling for a peaceful resolution.
Despite previous hopes for a US-Iran meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York next week, this is likely to be off the table given the current situation and unless the US eases sanctions.
The Saudi Arabia attacks September 2019 – what happened?
Tensions remain high in the Gulf following the 14 September attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Despite an initial claim of responsibility by the Yemen-based Houthi group, there is general consensus that the attacks did not come from Yemen but rather from the north. US media reported that the US had intelligence suggesting the incident proceeded from a base in south-western Iran, near the border with Iraq.
On 18 September, Saudi military officials displayed the remnants of 25 Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missiles it said were used in the strike as undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression, though an exact launch point was not pinpointed. Eighteen drones and seven cruise missiles were launched in the assault, according to Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki Al-Malki, with three missiles failing to hit their targets. He said the cruise missiles had a range of 700 kilometers (435 miles), meaning they could not have been fired from inside Yemen. An investigation to determine the exact launch site is ongoing, assisted by the UN and international experts.
The US is likely to limit response to increased sanctions
US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on 19 September that Washington and its allies were seeking a “peaceful resolution” with Iran in the wake of the attack. This is a change of tone from previous statements US officials had made over the past week, with US President Donald Trump initially tweeting the US was “locked and loaded” and Pompeo having said the attack, which he blamed on Iran, was “an act of war”. The most recent statement suggests Washington would limit its response to further sanctions rather than a direct strike on Iran, with Trump having said on 18 September that the US would “substantially” increase sanctions.
Indeed, any attack on Iran could come at a high price for both the US and the region. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that any reprisal attack on Iran by the US or Saudi Arabia would lead to “all-out war”. It is likely that Iran would use its vast proxy network in the region to stage attacks on US interests and allies. This would likely include the 5,000 US forces stationed in Iraq, where Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) could stage revenge attacks. US warships in the Persian Gulf, many of them docked in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, would also be vulnerable to reprisals from Iranian naval vessels as well as missiles and drones.
It is likely that Trump is extremely reluctant to be drawn into another full-scale military conflict as he campaigns for re-election while seeking to draw down troop levels in Afghanistan and Syria. Trump had shown previous restraint when he called off military action against Tehran in June after Iran downed a U.S. Navy spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Saudi also does not want a full-scale conflict
Saudi officials have also made it clear they did not want to trigger a full-scale conflict. Thus far, Saudi Arabia has avoided directly naming Iran as the aggressor, which is probably a deliberate tactic. Naming Iran would mean that Riyadh needs to respond in some way, which would open them up to a larger military conflict at a time the county is already under substantial domestic and foreign pressure. Furthermore, the recent UAV strikes on the Saudi oil fields highlighted the vulnerability of their energy infrastructure, which is impossible to entirely defend, and the limits of their air defence operational capacity.
Indeed, the attack revealed the limits of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly sophisticated air-defence system. Riyadh in recent years has spent billions of dollars building up six battalions of U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles and associated radars. The Patriots are meant to shoot down hostile aircraft or shorter-range ballistic missiles. It is likely the Saudis weren’t prepared for an attack from the north, particularly as their air defences have been primarily focused on threats from the south, in the direction of Houthi rebels who frequently launch shorter-range missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory. Lack of expertise and training in operating the systems as they should be operated may have been another factor.
It is highly likely that Saudi’s aim is to contain rather than escalate the situation which could lead to further attacks or worse, such as an assault on the Saudis’ export facilities in the Persian Gulf or any of the desalination plants that supply drinking water.
“The kingdom calls upon the international community to assume its responsibility in condemning those that stand behind this act, and to take a firm and clear position against this reckless behaviour that threatens the global economy,” – Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir
US is mulling other forms of response to the attacks
In addition to the increased sanctions, the US is probably mulling other ways to respond, including the possibility of staging further cyberattacks against Iran. Washington has already used cyberattacks when Trump ordered US military cyber forces in June to carry out a strike against military computer systems used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to control rocket and missile launchers in response to the downing of a US Navy drone. That attack reportedly “wiped out a critical database” used by Tehran to plan such attacks.
Another likely avenue that the US and Saudi will pursue in the coming days and weeks is increasing covert actions against Iran and Iran-linked groups in the region. A Saudi-owned media outlet reported on 18 September that Riyadh had participated in airstrikes targeting ‘Iranian militia positions’ in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. The strikes reportedly destroyed weapons Iran intended to use against additional Saudi Arabian targets. Such an action is relatively low-cost, particularly as it comes as Israel continues to stage regular strikes against Iran-linked groups in Syria as well as in Iraq.
As a minimum, the US is likely discussing with Saudi ways to mitigate future attacks. This would likely include placing more forces and defensive military equipment in and around Saudi Arabia to help increase security. Patriot missile batteries and enhanced radar systems could be options.
There is a low likelihood for dialogue between the US and Iran
While direct military conflict remains a low-likelihood scenario at present, regional tensions remain high and there is potential for miscommunication or miscalculation to escalate the situation, particularly as there is no off-ramp for the current tensions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif received visas and will travel to New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations next week. Prior to the Saudi attacks, there had been speculation that Trump might try to arrange a meeting with his Iranian counterpart at the summit, although this is increasingly unlikely amid the current climate. A meeting would likely only take place if the US eased up on its sanctions regime, and this will almost certainly not happen.
There is a realistic possibility Washington could target Iran with so-called secondary sanctions that could hamper the efforts of European allies still party to the 2015 nuclear deal to ease tension with Iran. This would likely have a negative effect on France’s proposed offer to Iran of a USD15 billion credit lines, if Tehran comes fully back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. That whole arrangement would hinge on US approval, which is unlikely to be given amid the current standoff. In response to the escalating sanctions regime, Iran will likely continue to reduce its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the coming months.
Escalatory points to monitor for your travellers and organisation
With every incident and attack that occurs, the situation becomes more and more fragile. Escalatory points to monitor in the coming days and weeks include:
- Increasing hostile rhetoric on either side suggesting preparation for military conflict.
- Additional attacks against Saudi critical infrastructure that are attributed to Iran.
- Additional attacks against shipping interests in the Gulf that are attributed to Iran.
- Further reports of Riyadh staging airstrikes against pro-Iran interests in Iraq.
- Further Israeli airstrikes against pro-Iran interests in Iraq.
- Clashes or attacks involving PMU and US troops in Iraq.
- Increased Houthi rocket, missile and UAV strikes into southern Saudi Arabia.
- The US removal of sanctions waivers from Iraq to import Iranian electricity and gas.
- Iran-attributed cyberattacks on regional government and military interests and/or foreign companies operating in the Gulf.
- An attack involving US casualties.
- Complete breakdown of the JCPOA.