One of the big themes of this blog is that when it comes to Iran politics and policy, everything old is new again. That’s perhaps a truism of international relations in general, except that in Iran’s case, the lifecycle for any particular trope or story is excessively short.
Take this past weekend’s attack on a Saudi oil refinery, for example. The Houthis, a Yemeni Shiite group backed by Iran, quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Now, however, various U.S. and Saudi intelligence sources are telling the media that the attacks originated from Iran, not Yemen, and that the weapon used was a cruise missile rather than attack drone, as the Houthis had previously claimed.
Whom to believe?
As usual, history is instructive here. Looking back, it’s worth remembering that we did a similar dance in early 2018 following a Yemeni missile attack. That attack failed, but the Saudis and Trump administration still moved quickly to place the burden of responsibility for the missile on Iran. The Saudis gathered the missile debris from the desert and sent it to the United States, where Trump officials put it on display for diplomats and media organizations. I wrote about this at the time, noting my skepticism about the entire affair.
This most recent incident also comes on the heels of this summer’s tanker wars drama, which similarly featured a sketchily defined “attack” that was quickly blamed on Iran. Somehow, the public received even less physical evidence throughout that saga, despite numerous and forceful accusations of Iranian blame. In the end, we had to settle for squinting at some grainy footage of an IRGC boat doing…something…alongside the hull of a cargo ship as “definitive” proof for the veracity of these accusations.
One would think that if either the Saudis or the Americans had conclusive evidence that the attacks had, in fact, originated in Iran, they would not be so hesitant to disclose it. So far, all we have to go on in the refinery attack is a couple of aerial pictures of serious-looking installations marked with some very Official Top Secret-looking red boxes to draw our attention to the damage. This dossier has been backed up with the usual assortment of generic quotes from unnamed intelligence officials, reports, and, at least one instance, an unnamed *Congressional* source. There is also the omnipresent promise of the existence of additional classified evidence. This dossier, presumably, contains all the juicy, convincing details, but the general public cannot see it due to national security concerns. Exactly whose national security this evidence concerns is rarely mentioned.
It’s no secret that Iran provides support to the Houthis in their ongoing war against the Saudis, so it’s entirely possible, probable even, that Iran supplied the weapons for this attack. It’s certainly remarkable how accurate and capable the technology was in targeting the Saudi facilities. The effectiveness of the damage — immediately halving Saudi oil output — should serve as a stark warning that war with Iran will not be as easy nor as low-cost as some of its advocates may claim. Far less certain, however, is the degree to which Iran exerts direct operational control over Houthi operations. One notable aspect of the Iranian intervention in Yemen is how cheap it has been in comparison to the Saudis’ war effort. The Saudis pour billions per month into the conflict, mostly on costly American-made advanced weaponry. By contrast, the Iranian expenditures on the Houthi resistance amount to only several million dollars per year.
A direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia would not only be an abandonment of the formula that has served Iran strategically well in this conflict, miring the Saudis in a frustrating stalemate, it would also be a significant deviation from precedent. The Islamic Republic has never, in its history, launched a direct military attack (i.e., without using a proxy) on another nation’s sovereign territory unprovoked.
When the evidence is this thin, it’s crucial to think about how the competing factions are attempting to spin their preferred narratives. As with previous incidents in and around the Persian Gulf, the Saudis and the Trump administration are going to great lengths to try to convince the world that Iran is an aggressive, reckless, and vindictive country, one that is willing and perhaps even eager to lash out militarily at their rivals and endanger the global oil supply in the process. This logic holds even when the actions go against Iran’s best interests or, in some cases, common sense. The message the Iran hawks are sending isn’t subtle: Iran cannot be contained, so it must be stopped. Despite all the talk of looming negotiations and potential “dealmaking” between the United States and Iran, a story with a villain as menacing and irrational as this one can only satisfactorily end in evil’s comprehensive defeat. In this case, that means regime change.
The problem for the Saudis, and, by the same measure, the Israelis, is that they cannot achieve this result alone. They need the United States to do the heavy lifting. Donald Trump has been a godsend for both nations in financial and materiel terms, but his reluctance to take the plunge into kinetic action has clearly been a surprise and frustration. At a press conference yesterday, Trump responded to a question asking whether diplomacy with Iran is now exhausted. Trump said no, it’s never exhausted until the “final twelve seconds.” At this point, Saudi and Israeli leaders have to be asking themselves, “How do we get to eleven?”