Iran's strength and strategy show with Saudi oilfield attacks

In all the years of confrontation between the United States and Iran, it can be argued, Iran has learned more about how to handle the U.S. rather than the other way ’round. There are some Americans who know this, perhaps a few of whom are still in one part or another of government, but most appear not to realize it.

The latest example: the coordinated drone attacks Saturday on a Saudi oil installation that ignited global oil-based market concerns — and fears of a new level in drone-based warfare.

I am a contrarian on Iran, and have been since reporting from Tehran for the Financial Times during the 1979 revolution and the subsequent U.S. embassy hostage crisis. I did not think, as others did, that the Islamic revolution was a moment of political liberation. The tight control of the shah’s dictatorship was replaced by a theocratic-enforced populism. The clock turned back several centuries.

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No particular knowledge of Shia Muslim doctrine is needed to comprehend two basic facts. 

First, the thinking of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can be likened to a 1960s anti-American radical. And, following from this, the Islamic regime defines itself in terms of being opposed to the United States. It does not want anything from America, certainly not recognition.

A consequence of this mindset is that Iran’s nuclear program is needed to guarantee the future of the Islamic republic. No regime with a bomb has been overthrown. If you give up your nuclear program, as Moammar Gadhafi of Libya did, your future is imperiled.

Turning to the Persian Gulf (even the U.S. government uses this term, rather than “Arabian Gulf”), Tehran’s view is that the security of the waterway and its vital oil and gas reserves should be a matter for the countries of the Gulf alone. This is a definition that does not include a role for the U.S. or any other foreign power. Hence, also the corollary that if Iran cannot export oil, then other Gulf countries cannot do so, either.

Roughly speaking, this is where we are at the moment — or, rather, where we were three and a half months ago when, in response to mounting sanctions, Iran sabotaged oil tankers and caused drone attacks on a major oil pipeline across Saudi Arabia. In reaction, our allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed away from confrontation. And when an American reconnaissance drone was downed, a U.S. counter-strike was called off at the last moment.

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Details of Saturday’s attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia are still elusive but, in light of the previous Iranian-instigated attacks, it was utterly predictable. Most people had never heard of Abqaiq before, but it is a crucial installation in the Saudi kingdom, processing oil for export. After a botched al Qaeda attack in 2006, the kingdom got serious about dealing with the threat of internal terrorism.

Iran has denied any hand in the attack, but Washington insists it has proof of Iran's involvement. 

So how will our ally Saudi Arabia deal with this attack? The views of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, who is also minister of defense, on Iran are more realistic, albeit visceral, at least according to those who have discussed the subject with him. He sees the Islamic republic as a direct threat to his country, one that can be dealt with only by sponsoring insurrection and overthrowing the regime in Tehran.

The trouble with this strategy, as his interlocutors have pointed out to MbS, is that his kingdom also is vulnerable to foreign mischief-making. 

So far, Iran appears to have judged quite well what it can get away with. After all, until last weekend, it seemed as though President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE was going to meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. He may still, if Washington thinks that Rouhani is a moderate and can marginalize the so-called extremists in Tehran. This intellectual template is, in my view, at best flawed.

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Tehran may have judged that, despite his bluster, President Trump is risk-averse. The president’s curt dismissal of uber-hawk John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump job approval slips 2 points in Gallup poll Washington indecision compounded the Kurds' dilemma US Ambassador Sondland says Trump directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine MORE as national security adviser last week may have further emboldened those around Khamenei. They may be hoping that Trump will be voted out in 2020, to be replaced by a more congenial Democrat.

The other major aspect of the Abqaiq attack, whether it was by cruise missiles or drones, was its relative technological simplicity. It was apparently undetected in advance but devastating in its effect. Billion-dollar defense budgets may need to be re-examined for their relevance and value.

In the meantime, more information will come in about the impact on the world oil market. For the U.S., the only good point of this would be that higher oil prices make domestic shale exploitation more profitable.

In historical terms, the Abqaiq attack may come to be listed alongside the demise of the knight in armor, or the introduction of the machine gun, in the advance of military technology. All in all, it was quite a weekend for the world.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.