In a matter of minutes on Saturday, two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia sustained crippling damage from drones, and perhaps cruise missiles as well. With the flow of 5 per cent of the world’s oil instantly halted, global oil prices have gyrated. As economists calculate the impact on the world economy, and arguments rage over who was responsible, it is worth making sure we understand what this reckless assault is telling us.
First, it is a reminder that the nature of warfare is changing. Saudi Arabia has powerful armed forces, a sophisticated air force and hi-tech defences. It could easily fight off a large-scale attack by any state in the region. Yet drones are small enough to go undetected by those defences and can hit a target with sufficient accuracy to cause huge damage with a relatively limited payload.
This is only a foretaste of what will soon be possible. In the coming decades, the most valuable national assets of any country, from its critical economic infrastructure to its aircraft carriers, will be more vulnerable to a swarm of many, small but long-range precision devices, coordinating with each other by artificial intelligence, than to any conventional bombing campaign. Our national security is going to rely on investing sufficiently heavily in defence to be one step ahead of such future adversaries.
For Iran, under severe pressure from American sanctions and closely allied to a range of forces from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Al Assad regime in Syria and Al Houthis in Yemen, the temptation to strike in this murky and asymmetric fashion is strong.
In the meantime, the proliferation of cheap drone technology is making it possible to launch devastating attacks, by proxy forces, in undeclared wars, with minimal risk to the assailants. For less than $15,000 (Dh55,087) each, a dozen drones can be put into the air to fly nearly a thousand miles and with enough explosive payload to cause damage of vastly greater value. And even if there are plenty of anti-aircraft defences, they are designed to shoot down planes and therefore too great in cost and few in number to defeat swarms of smaller drones.
Widely available modern technology can thus now be conveniently employed alongside the ancient strategy of using proxy forces to escalate conflict while denying responsibility. With Israel, Iran and Turkey building their own drones, and many other countries in the region importing them, the Middle East is soon going to be awash with weapons that can strike suddenly and anonymously at the highest value targets. It is a dangerous game for any country to embark on this kind of attack, with the potential for retaliation and protracted tit-for-tat strikes rising all the time.
For Iran, under severe pressure from American sanctions and closely allied to a range of forces from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Al Assad regime in Syria and Al Houthis in Yemen, the temptation to strike in this murky and asymmetric fashion is nevertheless strong. With their own oil trade severely restricted, Iranian leaders have been trying to prove that the flow of oil from the Gulf allies of the United States can be threatened too — hence recent attacks on oil tankers at sea. The strikes on Saudi Arabia could easily be in line with that strategy, as well as with other drone and missile attacks intended to raise the cost to the Saudis of continued involvement in Yemen.
Hardliners in Tehran, within the Revolutionary Guard or close to the Supreme Leader, could have designed the attacks to wreck the possibility of an unprecedented meeting between their own President Hassan Rouhani and Donald Trump. It is clear that the departure of John Bolton, a key hawk, as US national security adviser was precipitated by a disagreement with Trump on Iran strategy. The sight of globally vital oil facilities in flames makes such a meeting in the near future far more difficult. Whoever authorised these attacks intended to create difficult dilemmas for America, the rest of the West, and the Arab states of the Gulf about how to respond.
The initial response must be to avoid quick retaliation and to concentrate on clear attribution of who did this. That is indeed what Washington has been focused on, with evidence that links the explosions to the Iranians rather than their Al Houthi allies. In the longer term, highly irresponsible actions of this kind are best deterred by demonstrating that the true source of them can often or ultimately be identified.
But even more crucially, these events are the opportunity to bring the West back to a coherent and viable strategy towards Iran. Tehran has continued to destabilise the rest of the Middle East, and the renunciation of the nuclear deal by the US under Trump has left the West sharply divided. That division resulted in Washington abandoning the agreement.
If no progress can be made in the coming months, and Iran continues on a path of more reckless and provocative actions, Britain, France and Germany — all of which have been instrumental in the nuclear deal — would be justified in backing the tougher approach by the White House. That means sanctions applied by more of the world, intensifying and solidifying the effect upon the Iranian economy. The uniting of Western governments against them would be a severe penalty for Tehran.
Iran represents one of the great civilisations of history, and its people deserve the opportunity to join in global prosperity and regional peace. The prospect of that should still be held out to them but if the only answer is to sponsor violence, attack neighbours and employ the new and sinister weaponry of a more dangerous age, then the rest of the world must steel itself to give a united and determined response.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019
William Hague is the former foreign secretary of the UK.