Is Iran behind the attacks against Saudi oil facilities?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 16 Sep 2019

One of the kingdom’s most significant oil facilities has been targeted. Here's what the experts say about it.

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Harad, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. ( Planet Labs Inc / Reuters )

On the morning of September 14 the world woke up to the news that Saudi Arabia had come under attack at one of its most crucial oil facilities, called Abqaiq, located in the country's eastern province. The initial media reports suggest that the site, owned by the kingdom's petroleum giant Aramco, was attacked by armed drones, destabilising the global energy markets as the oil barrel outflow from Saudi was reduced to half of its total exports.  

So far several conflicting reports have emerged about the source of the attacks, although Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen have claimed responsibility for hitting the world’s biggest oil producer. The US government was quick to point the finger at Iran.   

The Riyadh-led Gulf coalition, which is backed by Washington, has waged a bloody war against the Houthis in Yemen for the last four years. The unrelenting Houthis controlled large swathes of territory, including the capital city Sana. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, and displaced even more. The country is facing a humanitarian crisis, including famine and various types of deadly diseases. 

“I think this is the natural result of Saudi atrocities in Yemen. [After] four and a half years of atrocities and war crimes, [this shows] how people of Yemen are able to defend themselves more and more,” said Mohammed Marandi, an Iranian-American academic and political analyst. 

According to the UN, 24 million people in Yemen, which corresponds to 80 percent of the its population, are in need of  “assistance and protection”. 

Marandi ruled out the possibility of Iran launching the attack on the oil facility, saying the Houthis were behind it.  

The Houthis have previously targeted the Saudi assets, damaging oil terminals and pumping stations. “They are becoming more and more professional and capable,” Marandi told TRT World.

He strongly disputed the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Iranians are behind the attack. Tehran also denied any involvement in the attacks.

A still image from video footage shows Houthi Military Spokesman, Yahya Sarea announces the group's responsibility for the attacks on Aramco facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, taken from a video broadcasted in Sanaa, Yemen September 14, 2019.(Reuters)

“The fact that Pompeo’s claims [about Iranian participation are coming] right after the attack shows that he’s lying. He’s not waiting for any information,” Marandi said. 

“Americans are in Iraq. Americans are in the Persian Gulf. How could these drones have gone from Iraq or anywhere else without American’s knowing?” he questioned. 

Experts are also trying to come to terms with whether the drones or missiles were used for the attack. Either way, they are surprised at how the Saudi authorities were unable to detect the projectiles entering their airspace.

The distance between the Houthi-held territories in Yemen and Saudi refineries is more than 1,000 kilometres (621 miles). The flying object covering a long distance and entering the kingdom's airspace undetected should be a cause of serious worry for Saudi government, many experts viewed.  

According to political analyst Mehmet Bulovali, the attacks have been definitely orchestrated by Iran, using its Shiite proxies in Iraq. 

“I think these attacks have been launched from the desert areas of Iraq’s southern city of Basra. It’s certain,” said Buloavali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political activist who served as an advisor to Iraq's former vice president Tariq al Hashimi. 

Both Pompeo and Baghdad have stated that Iraqi soil has not been used by launching attacks against the Saudi refineries. 

Bulovali said there are two reasons why Iran would attack Saudi Arabia at this stage of their decades-old rivalry.  

According to Bulovali, Iran wants to convince its population that despite the country having suffered from economic hardships and global isolation for decades, “they are stronger than ever.” 

Secondly, he said, the external factors could be counted as well — that Tehran wants to send a strong message not only to its regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, but also to the US and Israel. 

“If we fall down, everybody will fall down, Iran is saying it literally,” Bulovali told TRT World. 

But Iran also sees a strategic opportunity in flexing its muscles, especially when elections are round the corner in both the US and Israel. 

“Iran provokes both the US and Israel because Tehran knows that both countries will hold crucial elections and they cannot hit back Iran at this time,” Bulovali observed. 

On Tuesday, Israel’s hardliner and longest serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face his most crucial political test in the rerun elections as the opposition to his rule has been recently strengthened. 

US President Donald Trump, a strong ally of both Netanyahu and Riyadh, is also increasingly operating in a hostile environment as the country’s 2020 elections approach fast. 

Adding to both allies’ election headaches, the Yemen war incrementally becomes more and more unmanageable for Washington, which has recently hinted that Saudis need to talk to the Houthis to end their intervention in the war-torn country. 

“Unless the Saudis and Emirates [UAE] stop the war [in Yemen], they will be going closer and closer to the cliff,” Marandi said. 

Saudi Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman is seen during his visit to an Aramco oil facility one day after the attacks in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 15, 2019.(Reuters)

After the recent attacks, the Houthis have vowed to bring more attacks into Saudi soil. 

The attacks have also raised questions about the US capability to defend its allies in the volatile Middle East. 

“The fact that Americans have given to the Saudis billions of dollars of air defence weaponry shows that the US is in fact the country that has been lying to Saudi Arabia about the capabilities of their air defense system,” Marandi said.  

Despite US threats against Iran, both Bulovali and Marandi think that a full-fledged war against Iran is not plausible at the moment. 

After the attacks, Trump tweeted saying that he allowed US crude reserves to be used to fill the oil gap emerged following the Saudi supply disruption. 

Bulovali believes that Trump could just have said that because of the oil disruption Tehran definitely deserves a severe punishment, excusing his war over Iran. But his announcement to release crude reserves says he does not want a war, Bulovali said. 

However, after the reserve release tweet, the US president also wrote another tweet saying that the country is “locked and loaded depending on verification”. 

“If the US attacks, then, Iran and its allies are fully prepared. I believe that the Saudi regime, the Emirate regime and all the proxies in the region will collapse very quickly. This is not a battle or war that the US can win,” Marandi viewed. 

“If the Houthis can do this to the Saudis in one attack, imagine what Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere can do,” he concluded.