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An attack on the Saudi oil empire raises new specter of conflict

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In the early hours of Saturday, a wave of apparent drone strikes hit at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil empire. The blasts at key facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais forced Saudi oil giant Aramco to suspend production of about 5.7 million barrels per day — roughly half the kingdom’s output and 5 percent of the world’s total supply — with a fuzzy time frame on when normal production would resume. Various trade analysts warned that the price of a barrel could spike this week; one expert even declared that, “in the oil universe,” the strikes were “perhaps equivalent to the 9/11 attacks.”

The attacks were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, an Iran-linked faction already responsible for multiple rocket and drone strikes on targets within Saudi Arabia’s borders — acts which they view as retaliation for the Riyadh-led coalition’s near-half-decade war in their country. But these seemed of a different magnitude of sophistication: A supposed fleet of 10 Houthi drones flew hundreds of miles undetected over Saudi territory before unleashing a crippling attack on infrastructure critical to global energy markets.

“Houthi missiles have struck Saudi sites before, including its oil infrastructure,” my colleagues reported. “But the latest strike on Aramco was a symbolic blow against the historical hub of the kingdom’s oil riches, and the centerpiece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to remake the kingdom’s economy.”

They added that Abqaiq “may be the world’s most important piece of oil infrastructure, built to process about 7 million barrels a day of oil so that it can be shipped out of the Persian Gulf to foreign markets.”

The symbolic heft of the attack added to the impression that it couldn’t just be a Houthi-directed strike. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Tehran directly for launching “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and said there was “no evidence” that the attacks originated from Yemen.

U.S. officials told my colleagues that some 15 structures at Abqaiq were damaged on the west-northwest-facing sides of the facility — not the southern facades, as one would expect with an incursion from Yemen. On Sunday, the Trump administration released declassified satellite photos they thought showed evidence of cruise missile strikes originating from Iraq or Iran. Other reports suggested the attack involved drones launched from a base in Iraq run by another Iran-backed militia — this time as a reprisal for an earlier Israeli drone attack on the Iraqi group that supposedly was assisted by Saudi intelligence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi denied that his country’s territory was used for the attack. The Iranians were all the more vociferous. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif urged Washington to stop “blaming” Iran and consider talks in a tweet where he rejected Pompeo’s “deceit."

But after a summer of attacks on shipping tankers in the Persian Gulf, it’s impossible to dismiss the Iranian hand in the equation. President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has squeezed the Iranian economy and probably convinced some officials in Tehran of the utility of carrying out asymmetric acts of sabotage that rattle neighbors and raise the geopolitical stakes in the region. Hard-liners in Iran are also eager to move away from the strictures of the nuclear deal already abrogated by the Trump administration and put more pressure on Zarif’s boss, President Hassan Rouhani.

“The attack fits with Iran’s apparent strategy at the moment,” tweeted Michael Singh, a former George W. Bush administration official. “Faced with a de facto oil embargo, it aims to deter the US by escalating its regional aggression and nuclear activities, likely because it perceives these are two areas of comparative advantage.”

Iran has, until now, retained a degree of plausible deniability. Keen to tamp down tensions, regional rivals like the United Arab Emirates have been coy about directly pinning the blame on Iran after various attacks. The strained relations between the Trump administration and the country’s traditional allies in Europe — who all opposed Trump’s departure from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions on Iran — have made it hard for Washington to cobble together a joint response to suspected Iranian violations. And the general volatility of the White House has prompted many other governments to second-guess Trump’s broader motives and strategy.

“If you are Iran,” observed Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security, “this lack of US credibility gives you more flexibility to support these types of unattributed attacks, because the threshold for believing US claims at this point is so high it’s almost impossible to meet.”

After remaining conspicuously silent through the weekend, Trump tweeted Sunday evening that “there is reason to believe that we know the culprit” and that his administration was waiting for more clarification from the Saudis before determining how to proceed. In a subsequent tweet, Trump seemed to pour cold water on speculation that he was preparing for a meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of upcoming events at the U.N. General Assembly.

Hawks in Washington, including plenty of figures within Trump’s own party, are opposed to the president sitting down with Rouhani. That pressure has been mirrored in Tehran, too, where a group of hard-line lawmakers issued an official parliamentary warning last month scolding Rouhani for considering a Trump meeting. Their influence — and that of the powerful Revolutionary Guard — may underlie the latest attacks.

“I don’t think we should overlook [the] possibility this was set up by Iranian hardliners alarmed by [the] possibility of a Trump-Rouhani meeting and determined to sabotage it,” suggested Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. diplomat and senior vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“There are hawks in Iran and America and in the region who want military conflicts,” said a senior Iranian government official, speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity. “Such attacks will make a military confrontation inevitable and that is what hardliners in Iran and elsewhere want. Such confrontation will harm not only Iran but all the countries in the Persian Gulf.”

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