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 drones. Israel 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.
The Iranian attack sends a clear message: This can get worse.
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.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.