In Brief

Is Iran Escalating Gulf Energy Attacks?

The attacks on the sprawling Saudi oil facility bear all the hallmarks of an Iranian operation, marking a dangerous new phase in Gulf tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of launching the weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities, while Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility. Is an Iranian connection plausible?

Iran has its share of motivations for an attack on the Saudi oil installations. After the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and started reimposing sanctions on Iran, Tehran began to signal it could threaten oil commerce through the Persian Gulf. Iran claims it is subject to economic terrorism and thus has a right to retaliate. This is not the first occasion that Iran has threatened oil shipments; it has already attacked a number of vessels. This is clearly an escalation and, given the economic squeeze, the Islamic Republic may have considered this a justifiable move.

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia.
A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. Planet Labs Inc/Reuters

What are Iran’s capabilities?

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Iran has at its disposal an impressive range of capabilities. It has a sophisticated arsenal of missiles that can accurately target Saudi Arabia and has upgraded its drone capacity over the years. In Iraq, Iran has trained and armed Shiite militias, it has penetrated Iraqi security services, and it has its share of political allies there. If the attack was made by the Houthis in Yemen, the missile capabilities had to come from Iran. As more evidence comes in, the nature of this attack will become clearer.

The incident comes barely a week before the UN General Assembly debate opens, and there has been intense speculation about a meeting between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Is that still possible?

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Iranian officials always rejected such talks. Even before the latest crisis in the Gulf, Tehran made it clear that it had no intention of participating in a presidential summit. At times, there were hints that, should Washington lift its sanctions, perhaps Iran could reassess its attitude. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been stern in his admonishment of diplomacy with the United States, while Rouhani has at times broached such a prospect only to retreat. In light of the tensions in the Gulf, the Iranians have made it clear that they have no intention of meeting with their American counterparts.

President Trump has indicated that the United States is waiting for Saudi signals about how to proceed. Do you see increased possibility for U.S.-Saudi joint action against Iran?

It is sensible to await Saudi reaction and gather all the evidence before proceeding. The Trump administration has worked hard to repair relations with Riyadh that were strained in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated in 2015 by Barack Obama’s administration. Through direct diplomacy, arms sales, intelligence sharing, and cooperation on regional security issues, the two sides have already established a basis for further coordination. The latest crisis may lead to further strategic cooperation.

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