Sun, Sep 22, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Saudi oil attack part of dangerous new pattern

A drone bombing at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil empire is just the latest in a series of attacks in the region where determining the perpetrator is fraught with confusion and political landmines

By Jon Gambrell  /  AP, DUBAI

Illustration: June Hsu

The recent assault on the beating heart of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil empire follows a new and dangerous pattern that has emerged across the Persian Gulf this summer of precise attacks that leave few obvious clues as to who launched them.

Beginning in May with the still-unclaimed explosions that damaged oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the region has seen its energy infrastructure repeatedly targeted.

Those attacks culminated in the Sept. 14 assault on the world’s biggest oil processor in eastern Saudi Arabia, which halved the oil-rich kingdom’s production and caused energy prices to spike.

Some strikes have been claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in the Arab world’s poorest country since 2015. Their rapidly increasing sophistication fuels suspicion among experts and analysts, however, that Iran may be orchestrating them — or perhaps even carrying them out itself as the US alleges in the case of the Sept. 14 attack.

“Iran can count on public skepticism to afford it some deniability under any circumstances, but an attack of this magnitude stands a much greater chance of provoking very severe diplomatic and military consequences,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

For its part, Iran only claimed one attack during this period, the shootdown of a US military surveillance drone it says entered its airspace on June 20. It publicly gave medals to the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard members who crewed the anti-aircraft battery that downed the drone.

It has separately acknowledged seizing oil tankers, the most prominent being the British-flagged Stena Impero on July 19.

However, the attacks on the oil tankers and the Houthi-claimed assaults on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure would match up with previous incidents blamed on Tehran. Experts describe Iran as relying on so-called non-attributable attacks, when blame is difficult to assign given the circumstances.

There are several reasons for this. Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been unable to purchase sophisticated weapons from the West like its Gulf Arab neighbors have. Its air force remains replete with pre-revolution, American-made F-4s, F-5s and F-14s, as well as Soviet fighter jets.

The US Navy sank half of Iran’s operational fleet in a one-day naval battle in 1988 amid the so-called “Tanker War.”

While it has built its own missile arsenal, experts say Iran’s armed forces would suffer in a head-to-head military confrontation. Launching attacks that cannot be easily linked back to Tehran limits the chance of direct retaliation.

Separately, Tehran has worked to grow a network of proxy forces in the Middle East. Iran backs the Lebanese militant group and political party Hezbollah, which offers it a way to pressure Israel, a longtime foe in the region.

Iran has worked to do the same with the Houthis, members of a Shiite Zaydi sect who seized Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014. Attacks claimed or attributed to these groups may have involved Tehran directly or indirectly, analysts say.

Those who allege Iran’s involvement point to the timing of the attacks coinciding with key moments in the unraveling of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, from which US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US on May 8 last year.

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