With rising tensions in the Middle East, what does Iran seek to gain by further provoking the United States and its allies?
Earlier this month, a drone strike against the Abqaiq processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia brought Aramco’s production capabilities to a grinding halt and threatened to send the world into an oil supply shock. While it is believed nobody was killed or injured in the assault, the incident depleted Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production by nearly 6 million barrels, accounting for five percent of all global production.
In response to the obvious security concerns in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf as a whole, President Trump decided to send 200 more troops to Saudi Arabia. This decision has received criticism from both the Right and the Left, with neither side wanting to escalate tensions in the region and draw the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East.
The administration has also decided to accelerate arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bolster their air defense capabilities, a move leaving many in Washington bitter considering both chambers of Congress voted in July to block arms sales to those two countries – a decision Trump immediately vetoed.
The Houthi insurgent group in Yemen were quick to claim responsibility for the attack, but the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, the U.K. and Germany point to the region’s usual suspect: Iran. The United States is likely going to increase sanctions, the European Union is contemplating reneging on their nuclear treaty with Iran, and Saudi Arabia has called this assault an “act of war” if proof comes forward that the drones came from Iranian territory.
Make no mistake about it, Iran is behind this attack. Whether you find the smoking gun in Iran or Yemen, this brazen assault has the Islamic Republic’s fingerprints all over it.
Iran has, of course, denied the attack, but believing the narrative coming out of Yemen and Iran would completely ignore 15 years of American intelligence regarding the Houthi insurgency’s technological and tactical capabilities. Since the armed insurgency began in 2004, there has been no evidence to suggest the Houthis are capable of independently carrying out an attack of this sophistication.
The Houthis claim that they specifically engineered this new model of turbo jet engine drones to penetrate deep into Saudi Territory and exploit holes in the Saudi and Emirati air defense systems. In other words, the drones would have had to fly undetected past the highly militarized border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen before flying over one thousand miles of Saudi territory to hit their target in Abqaiq. Even if the Houthis are to be given credit, this attack very likely required intelligence sharing and technological provisions from Iran.
Compare this to the much simpler avenue of flying a small fleet of drones from Iran across the Persian Gulf.
If you’ve been following the news coming out of the Middle East this summer, you’ll notice that this attack follows a trend of increasingly belligerent actions on Iran’s part. Just in the past few months, they commandeered a British oil tanker, shot down an American drone, and if they are behind this attack, then they have directly violated a foreign power’s sovereignty.
So, with increased sanctions, the possibility of the European Union pulling out of the nuclear deal, and the ever looming – albeit horrific – possibility of armed conflict with the United States and its allies in the Middle East, why is Iran not more inclined to play nice? Would they not be better off if they complied with the United States’ rules?
To that end, I’m inclined to answer no, and that is the crux to understanding Iran’s foreign policy. By playing a very strategic long game – and winning at nearly every turn, mind you – Iran has been able to accomplish their objectives and build their regional influence to a level nobody could have possibly predicted after the Islamic Revolution in Iran 40 years ago.
Iran continues to fund and influence Hamas and Hezbollah, giving them power all the way in Palestine and Lebanon and the ability to exert pressure on Israel. Friendly regimes in Syria and Iraq provide Iran with a so-called “land bridge” across the Middle East to the Mediterranean Sea, giving them much easier access to the aforementioned groups. Furthermore, the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated failure to defeat the Houthi insurgency puts Saudi Arabia’s capabilities under scrutiny more and more every day. The Islamic Republic has been able to accomplish all of this despite years of crippling sanctions and the ire of the most powerful country in the world.
Playing by America’s rules would require Iran to give up the strides they have made in achieving regional dominance, which, as it would seem by the Islamic Republic’s lack of will to resolve their issues with the United States, is not justifiable. Unfortunately, I argue that more attacks like we saw earlier this month can be expected, and the political climate in the Middle East will only grow more complex.