The flow of news continues from the Persian Gulf at a rapid pace. On Tuesday, sites connected to the oil industries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were reportedly hit for the second time this week. And according to a New York Times report, the White House is considering military plans against Iran, one of which includes the dispatch to the region of a huge taskforce of 120,000 soldiers. (U.S. President Donald Trump denied the report on Tuesday.) Iran’s choice of targets is already causing unusual volatility in the oil market and is of concern to the Trump administration.
In the first attack, on Sunday night, there were explosions at two Saudi container ships, as well as at an Emirati and a Norwegian container ship, in the vicinity of the United Arab Emirates’ port. All of the huge ships sustained damage, but the explosions caused no casualties. The attack, which came a few days after the Americans received intelligence warnings regarding plans for terrorist attacks on the oil industry, was clearly seen as an Iranian action, despite Iran’s counterclaim that it was a provocation on the part of a third country seeking to increase tensions.
The prospect that this was an isolated incident of happenstance was dispelled on Tuesday morning with the report of an attack by unmanned Houthi Yemeni rebel aircraft against two oil-pumping facilities in Saudi Arabia. In this case, the rebels claimed responsibility.
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The Houthis have a long account to settle with the Saudis over Saudi involvement in Yemen’s bloody civil war. But Iran, which provides financial support and weaponry to the rebels (and has also sent the rebels instructors from Hezbollah) has long been using the rebels to attack Saudi interests. Among other incidents in recent years, long-range Scud missiles have been fired from Yemen at Saudi Arabia and a container ship carrying Saudi oil from north of the Bab el-Mandeb Straits was attacked last year.
The proximity in time of the two attacks allows the Iranians to convey a clear, threatening message to the Americans and Saudis, without taking direct responsibility for the acts. It’s enough for everyone to know who is behind them.
Israeli analysts view the recent developments in the Gulf as reflecting a fundamental change resulting from a change in direction in Iranian policy. Until recently, the Tehran regime believed it could withstand the pressure of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and that it would be best to wait for the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, counting on Trump to lose his reelection bid – without getting in a direct confrontation with the United States and without Iran withdrawing from its international nuclear agreement.
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The Iranian regime changed its approach against the backdrop of the severity of Iran’s economic crisis and the not unreasonable prospect that Trump would indeed be reelected for another four years. At first, the Iranians had hoped to make their links with Europe a path to bypass Trump, both economically (blunting the effect of the sanctions) and diplomatically (maintaining the nuclear accord, which the United States withdrew from a year ago).
Instead, a substantial portion of major European corporations have been afraid to continue trading with Iran. And the damage to the Iranian economy is still expected to worsen considerably, due to the revocation at the beginning of the month of American waivers issued to countries that had continued to engage in the oil trade with the Iranians as well as the new wave of sanctions that Washington has announced against Iran’s metal industries.
After Iran signed its international nuclear accord in 2015, its oil production reached record highs of about 2.5 million barrels a day. That pace is now due to decline to about a million barrels per day, a figure that might make continued Iranian export of oil economically unfeasible. The Iranian leadership is also concerned about the U.S. designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and the targeted sanctions imposed on the Revolutionary Guards.
The Iranian dilemma is depicted in Israel as deliberating between sticking to the nuclear accord, despite American pressure, amid the reasonable prospect of continued economic collapse, or escalating the confrontation with the United States and the Gulf states along with a possible withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
In a statement last week, Tehran threatened that it would narrow its commitment to the nuclear accord in two months (without withdrawing from it for now). The two attacks on the oil sites took place a short time later, against the backdrop of continued warnings of additional Iranian terrorist acts against American targets, particularly forces stationed in Iraq.
On Monday, after the Emirati container ships were hit, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, saw to it to post pictures of himself on his Instagram account with two Shi’ite militia leaders in Iraq. The move appeared to be an act of double defiance of the Americans. Soleimani is signaling that he has a purported alibi, that he wasn’t in the vicinity of the attacks at the time. But the public Iranian patronage of the militias also conveys the message that the Iranians can receive assistance in return from the militias, against the Americans.
This still isn’t war and the amassing of American forces in the Middle East is still very limited, but the intelligence assessment is that a dangerous situation has been created here. The Iranians aren’t left with substantial space to maneuver economically and they are not accepting President Trump’s offer of direct dialog, as Trump has engaged in with North Korea, for the moment.
By the way, the two sides went head-to-head in the past in the Gulf. In 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the United States attacked a major Iranian oil installation and hit a large number of Iranian naval vessels after it became clear to the Americans that the Iranian regime was using mines to damage shipping traffic in the Gulf.
Israel is not directly involved at this point in the tension in the Gulf. Trump’s moves in the region are in large measure coordinated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who receives regular briefings on the steps the United States is taking. The impression in Jerusalem is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but not Israel, are in the Iranians’ immediate crosshairs if the exchange of blows continues to escalate.
But in the background, there is the possibility that Tehran will also choose to deploy people closer to Israel’s borders. A prime candidate for the task is Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which is funded by Tehran and sometimes receives orders from Iran. The near future in Gaza will be relatively sensitive, despite the transfer of Qatari funds to the Strip on Monday. That’s due to the calendar, with Nakba Day on Wednesday and the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv over the weekend.