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Here’s why Iran would target Saudi oil fields, risking US response

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Two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were hit in an attack on Saturday that’s disrupted 5% of the world’s daily oil supply.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but US officials and Saudi Arabia have doubts about this.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend explicitly blamed Iran, and Saudi Arabia on Monday said preliminary evidence shows Iranian weapons were used in the attack and that it did not originate in Yemen.

On Tuesday, CNN reported that Saudi and US investigators have determined “with very high probability” that the attack was launched from an Iranian base in Iran close to the border with Iraq.

But neither the US nor Saudi Arabia have presented evidence to back up their finger-pointing at Iran, and both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the French foreign minister have pressed for more information before jumping to conclusions. Iran has also denied any involvement.

But if Iran was responsible for the attack it would fall in line with a cycle of events that in recent months as Tehran seeks relief from crippling US sanctions under what the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Iran has been battling Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy and has reacted to the US sanctions by planting mines on tankers and seizing them at sea, efforts that have largely failed to compel the Trump administration to ease them. The Saudi attack, by contrast, sent shockwaves through global energy markets.

An expert said Iran may be simply trying to spike oil prices to raise pressure on the US to ease the sanctions and to punish the Saudis for supporting the US’s campaign against Iran.

‘Iran is trying to raise the costs for the US and its partners for the economic pressure it’s facing.’

“Assessments are still in the works, and it’s important not to rush to judgment without international scrutiny. At this point, however, it does appear that Iran is implicated in the attack. If this is the case, it would certainly fit a pattern we’ve seen over the summer where Iran is trying to raise the costs for the US and its partners for the economic pressure it’s facing, particularly the US sanctions that are significantly curtailing its oil exports,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, a top Middle East expert at the RAND Corporation, told Insider.

According to some reports, drones and more than 20 cruise missiles struck the Saudi oil facilities with precision — the kind of attack few insurgencies are likely to be able to mount.

“All signs point to Iranian responsibility,” Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush who’s now at The Washington Institute.

“This is not merely because US officials seem to have intelligence indicating that this is so. The scale and precision of the attack suggests that a state, rather than one of the Middle East’s many non-state militias, is behind it,” Singh said. “And few states if any beside Iran would have both the capability and motivation to mount an attack on Saudi oil production.”

Singh said Iran’s denial of responsibility “tells us little” and characterized it as par for the course from a country that “wants to inflict pain but avoid a broader conflict.”

Iran wants leverage

The incident in Saudi Arabia occurs in the broader context of an impasse between the US and Iran over crippling economic sanctions that Tehran is desperate to find relief from. Since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement — designed to keep them from building nuclear weapons — and reimposed sanctions, US-Iran relations have deteriorated and reached a boiling point this summer.

The US has sought to hit Iran where it hurts with sanctions designed to choke of the oil revenue that is its primary source of income; they went into full effect in May. Some countries, including China, have still taken oil from Iranian tankers and risked economic penalties from the US.

Read more: Iran could take advantage of Trump’s wishy-washy response to the Saudi oil field attacks

There’s also another piece to this: Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at odds for decades, and are currently engaged in a proxy war in Yemen. Iran is backing the Houthi rebels in the war, who are fighting against the Saudi-led coalition.

In this context, there are many reasons for Iran to target the Saudi oil industry, given the kingdom is one of their top adversaries and a close partner of the US. Not to mention, Iran has already been blamed for oil tanker attacks in the region and has also been involved in the seizure of oil tankers in recent months — including on Monday.

Singh told Insider there are at least four reasons why Iran would want to conduct an attack like this:

  1. “First, and quite simply, to raise oil prices, which is not an insignificant consideration given the sharp reduction in the volume of Iran’s oil exports.”
  2. “Second, to punish Saudi Arabia for its participation in the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”
  3. “Third, to expose and widen a gap between the US and its regional allies by demonstrating American reluctance to act to defend its partners.”
  4. “And fourth, to generate pressure on the United States to relax its sanctions against Iran by stoking a sense of crisis.”

“Iran’s months-long campaign of regional escalation — attacks on tankers, pipelines, and now the Abqaiq facility — is linked to its nuclear escalation, in that it sees both areas as points of leverage against the US and our allies, and believes we will be hard-pressed to respond,” Singh added.

‘If Iran is in the mindset it has nothing to lose, we can expect more provocations.’

An attack on major oil facilities impacting the global oil supply is a much bigger deal than tanker attacks and seizures, and could signal that more attacks of this magnitude are on the horizon as Iran seeks leverage in the stalemate with the US and other Western powers over sanctions and the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran has taken steps away from the deal over the past few months, raising anxiety among European countries scrambling to save the landmark agreement.

“This attack is particularly brazen, especially if it was launched directly from Iran rather than through regional proxies,” Kaye said. “But it’s not terribly surprising given the escalation cycle we’ve seen since the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the maximum pressure campaign.”

“If Iran is in the mindset it has nothing to lose, we can expect more provocations, unfortunately,” Kaye added. “Presumably, Iranian leaders believe these types of activities can gain them leverage in the future, but it’s a risky gambit when their actions are threatening global stability.”

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