Tehran has vehemently denied Washington’s accusation that Iran is to blame for drone and missile strikes on Saudi Aramco’s key oil facilities, cutting global oil supplies by five per cent. Since neither side has international credibility, it is difficult to affix blame, even though Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility.
If found to have launched the operation, Iran would face retaliation against its oil installations, risking all-out war. The timing is not right. US president Donald Trump has proposed a meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and spoken of reducing sanctions. Tensions have eased. Trump fired hawkish anti-Iran adviser John Bolton, and France has offered $15 billion to mitigate against sanctions.
US officials have cited satellite images showing the attack was launched from the either Iraq or Iran but US secretary of state Mike Pompeo dropped the charge against Iraq. The New York Times reported satellite photographs released by the US on Sunday did not “appear as clear cut as officials suggested, with some appearing to show damage on the western [Yemen] side of the facilities, not from the direction of Iran or Iraq”.
Washington has promised to release more classified information, but the longer the wait the greater the suspicion it could be doctored, as was intelligence justifying the 2003 US war on Iraq.
Although US officials claim the Houthis do not have the expertise to mount a sophisticated attack, a study by the counterterrorism centre at the US military academy at West Point contradicts this contention. The study traces the metamorphosis of the Houthis from a tribal guerrilla force to become the “most powerful military entity in [their] country”, capable of using the latest weaponry.
The study credits Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbullah for providing training, but says the Houthis make their own decisions. Since early this year, they have staged dozens of drone and missile strikes on Saudi targets. While most have been intercepted, military bases, an oil pumping station and civilian airports have been struck.
The Houthis have practical political reasons to hit the Saudis. They are determined to punish Saudi Arabia, a traditional foe, for prosecuting a war that prevented them from taking control of all Yemen during 2015. The Emiratis, who partnered Riyadh in the stalemated conflict, are pulling out. The Houthis want the Saudis to follow suit.
The Houthis do not have time to waste: 100,000 Yemenis have been killed and 2.3 million displaced. The country has been devastated; criminal gangs, secessionists and jihadis compete for power and territory.
For the Houthis, the timing is significant. Coming before the UN General Assembly session, the attacks put pressure on world leaders to halt the Yemen war by urging Riyadh to call a ceasefire. The strikes have shown that the company’s oil facilities and world supplies are vulnerable to attack, while Riyadh has been touting the repeatedly postponed launch of Aramco shares.
Earnings from sales are meant to be invested in the kingdom’s economic reform and development plan, Vision 2030. Fresh strikes could scupper this plan.