Attacks on Saudi oil facilities raise US-Iran tensions

By John Mecklin, September 16, 2019

Recent attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities are dominating international security news today, and with good reason. Those attacks—against the Abqaiq crude oil processing installation and the Khurais oil field—have reportedly shut down half of Saudi Arabian oil production for an as-yet-undetermined time, causing a spike in world oil prices and raising the prospect of a US attack on Iran.

Houthi rebels in Yemen—long the target of a Saudi air campaign supported by the United States—have claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were carried out by drones. Unnamed US officials, however, have told a variety of major media outlets that the attacks actually came from Iran. Citing a “senior Trump administration official,” ABC News reported that “Iran launched nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones from its territory in the attack on a key Saudi oil facility Saturday.”

Other outlets were more circumspect in regard to the administration’s claims. The New York Times, for instance, reported that Saudia Arabia claimed that Iranian weapons had been used and that the attacks did not come from Yemen. The paper also reported that US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, contended that the attacks came from Iran but was careful to note that satellite photographs released as evidence for the claim “did not appear as clear cut as officials suggested.”

For his part, President Trump tweeted a suggestion that Iran was responsible without naming that country and raised the vague prospect of US military action by using the phrase “locked and loaded.”

Iran has vigorously denied involvement, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeting this tart response:

Amid the uncertainty about the source of the attacks, the weapons used, and the possibility of a US military response, a post on the Arms Control Wonk site provided concrete details about a particular type of cruise missile that could have been used in the attacks on Saudi Arabia. Authored by open-source intelligence analyst Fabian Hinz, the post does not definitively settle where the attacks originated. But it does make a persuasive case that if recently posted social media pictures of cruise missile wreckage actually depict a weapon used against Abqaiq, “it would seem more likely that the attack originated from a place closer to Eastern Saudi Arabia than Northern Yemen – potentially Iraq, Iran or perhaps even from ships.”

But Hinz quickly qualified his conclusion, acknowledging “that is a big if at the current moment.”


Publication Name: Arms Control Wonk
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