OPN 190920 SAUDI ARAMCO ATTACK.JPG-1568976615021
Smoke billows following a fire at Aramco facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, on September 14, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

There is little doubt that Iran was involved, directly or indirectly, in Saturday’s multiple drone or missile strikes on two Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which forced the company to temporarily suspend the production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day.

This was the most serious attack on Saudi Arabia by Iran or its Houthi proxy in Yemen. President Donald Trump and senior US officials were quick to point the finger at Tehran amid international condemnation and expressions of solidarity with Riyadh.

Iran may have overplayed its hand this time by launching or helping to launch a coordinated and sophisticated attack on its Gulf neighbour. It is highly unlikely that the Houthis have access to drones that are capable of flying for thousands of kilometres and strike multiple targets with high precision. The possibility that Iranian Cruise missiles were used cannot be discounted. And if that is what happened then the US must have physical evidence of what hit the oil facilities and where did the drones or missiles originate from.

Iran must be isolated on the world stage following the recent attack. The UN General Assembly meetings will be a good start

- Osama Al Sharif

The fallout from the attack will affect many countries that depend on Saudi oil supplies like India, Japan, China and South Korea. The rise in oil prices will hurt many developing economies and may accelerate a world recession. Iranian denials notwithstanding, the attack must be seen as a game changer not only for the Gulf States, whose collective security is now being challenged like never before, but for the crisis between the US and Iran and beyond.

Iran’s capacity to use proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has been proven and while the US and Saudi Arabia prepare to present additional evidence of Tehran’s culpability it is Washington that must re-examine its strategy in dealing with Iran. President Trump’s contradictory statements on the matter have frustrated its regional allies. He has gone from saying that the US was “locked and loaded depending on verification” following the attack to declaring, a day later, that he would “like to avoid” a military conflict with Tehran and give diplomacy a chance.

Iran’s defiance

No one wants to see an unpredictable military confrontation take place in the Gulf. But more than a year after Trump withdrew his country from the 2015 multilateral nuclear pact with Iran and imposed biting sanctions, Tehran has demonstrated its defiance while taking actual steps to threaten the free passage of oil in Gulf waters. It is the main suspect in the sabotage of four oil tankers anchored off Fujairah last May. Iran has hijacked a British registered oil tanker last August and even a day after the Aramco attack it seized another ship for allegedly smuggling oil.

Trump’s reliance on diplomacy to resolve the crisis with Iran does not appear to be working as well. On Tuesday Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out one-to-one talks with the US at any time thus ending speculations about a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week.

The attack against Saudi Arabia must be seen as a direct challenge to Washington, whose reaction in the coming days will be crucial for its regional allies. Failing to act will only embolden Iran’s extremists and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which is acting at the command of Khamenei and a small circle of radicals. Trump’s bet on Rouhani is a useless one at this point.

International naval presence

Iran must be isolated on the world stage following the recent attack. The UN General Assembly meetings will be a good start. But moreover, the US must work with its European allies to put additional pressure on Tehran. One form of pressure could be the beefing up of international naval presence in the Gulf waters to stop Iran from seizing oil tankers and disrupting maritime activity. One immediate move must be to disclose any available evidence that links Iran to the latest strikes. The US must be in possession of such evidence.

Taking the matter to the UN Security Council is also a realistic option. Iran has been portraying itself as the victim of unfair US sanctions, but that did not prevent it from financing its proxies in the region while developing its long-range missiles and breaching the nuclear deal.

The onus now is on US to show that Iran must be made accountable for this dangerous development that will affect the region and the rest of the world. Failing to act with resolve will send a message to Tehran that the US is abandoning its regional allies.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.