The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader's latest rhetoric is Tehran saying "we can down your drones as well and show them off," while quietly letting the media reports show how Iranian drone technology has enabled Iran or its allies to violate Saudi Arabia's airspace.
Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami made the speech during an exhibition of US drones that have been downed by Iran. This was an interesting tit-for-tat to Saudi displaying parts of the drones used in the September 14 attack.
The IRGC warned that any country that threatens Iran will become the "main battlefield," which illustrates that Iran's strategy will be to strike back hard and quickly in response to an attack. This is a coded warning to the entire Gulf, including key Saudi and US allies such as the UAE or Bahrain. It is likely a warning directly to Riyadh that the attack on Abqaiq is just a taste of what could come.
"Be careful, a limited aggression will not remain limited. We will pursue the aggressors," said Salami. Tasnim news reported that Salami said Iran has only showed off a part of its capabilities. Symbolically, the IRGC chief gave his Saturday speech in front of an image of Iranian drones.
The overall message from Tehran is threefold: We can strike everywhere in the region, we will respond aggressively throughout the region to any attacks on us and we have already downed your drones – we have the technology to do worse. This is a serious moment for the US and their allies, because Washington doesn't want to look like it is backing down.
But it has few good options and it doesn't want its allies to pay the price for a war. It knows that discussions with Saudi Arabia have revealed that air defenses in the kingdom were unable to prevent this strike and two other long-distance drone strikes since May.
That means the US would have to deploy massive air defense assets across the Gulf, over a distance of several thousand kilometers, to confront any Iranian response. The US says Iran is responsible, and, in most cases, this would be a cause for war. But that decision would have to be made in Riyadh.
At home, the Trump administration faces two problems in this regard. Some critique it for being weak on Iran and not follow through with threats made to respond. This means Iran is empowered, critics say.
But the administration is also being accused of waiting for the Saudis to decide and being willing to go to war for Riyadh, when Riyadh is not a treaty ally of the US. Yet the US has gone to war before in the Gulf, in the 1980s and 1991. It has defended allies in the Gulf in the past and clashed with Iran. So there is precedent.
But this administration is not the same as that of presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Times have changed, and so has Iran. It is exponentially more powerful than in the 1980s. It has technology that makes it one of the leading drone powers in the world in terms of military technology.
Iran put this on display on Saturday exhibiting the US drones it says it has shot down or downed in other ways. Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Ministry is trying to show that there is daylight between the Israeli position and Washington, publishing stories about former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson critiquing Israel. The goal here is to quietly push the idea that any US tensions with Iran are due to Israel and the Saudis.
Iran's allies in Lebanon and Yemen are watching closely. Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia could be destroyed in any war with Iran. Meanwhile, the Houthis indicated they were prepared to stop attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis took responsibility initially for the September 14 strike. But the Saudis are holding Iran responsible, as is the US.
After Riyadh took journalists on a tour of the facilities struck on September 14, their Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated that Saudi Arabia holds Iran responsible and that the attack did not come from Yemen.
Amid the rhetoric that US still seeks the sanctions route, its allies contemplate how Iran's role can be stymied and future attacks like the one in Saudi Arabia can be prevented.
For a week at least, it appears Tehran outplayed its rivals, showing that it can threaten oil processing and supplies in response to sanctions, and that all its adversaries can do is hold tours with the press and talk about more sanctions or international condemnation.
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.