Daily Briefing: The Assault On Saudi Arabia’s Oil Facilities: Possible Implications (September 24, 2019)

Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari, aka Mohammad Javad Zarif, is an Iranian diplomat, academic and current Minister of Foreign Affairs (Source: Flickr)

Table Of Contents:

The Attack on the Saudi Oil Facilities: A New Level of Iranian Audacity:  Yoel Guzansky, Eldad Shavit, Sima Shine, INSS Insight No. 1214, Sept. 18, 2019

INSS Expert: Trump Has Lost Control Of Iran Standoff:  Yonah Jeremy Bob, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 23, 2019

Guest Opinion: War with Iran is Just the Conflict Russia and China Want:  Khosrow B. Semnani, Desert News, Sept. 20, 2019

Iran’s Radical Axis Is Intensifying Its Efforts to Build a War Machine Against Israel:  Yaakov Lappin, Besa, Sept. 16, 2019


The Attack on the Saudi Oil Facilities: A New Level of Iranian Audacity
Yoel Guzansky, Eldad Shavit, Sima Shine
INSS Insight No. 1214, Sept. 18, 2019

The September 14, 2019 attack on the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia – including Abqaiq, which is considered the largest of its kind in the world – is the most serious kinetic attack on oil facilities in the Gulf since the 1991 Gulf War, in terms of damage and economic significance. The attack resulted in a temporary reduction of 5.7 million barrels per day, about 50 percent of Saudi production capacity (total Saudi production capacity in August was 9.85 million barrels of oil per day, which are about 5 percent of global output). So far, the Saudis have maintained a partial blackout on the full details of the incident, and have so far avoided ascribing direct responsibility to Iran – in contrast to their initial responses following attacks in May and July on oil tankers in the Gulf and oil facilities in the kingdom that were attributed to Iran. Meantime, Riyadh is trying to broadcast “business as usual,” while emphasizing that there were no casualties and that they have the ability to return rapidly to oil production levels. Yet even if the Saudis do manage to resume full production quickly, the vulnerability of the oil supply chain to specific threats in the Gulf has been revealed.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to pin the blame on Iran, while President Donald Trump was more cautious in his pronouncements, saying “it’s looking” as if Iran is behind the attack, and declaring that the US is “locked and loaded” to respond “depending on verification.” The administration, he averred, is “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” He added, “I’m not looking to get into a new conflict but sometimes you have to.” Reports in the US media relying on official American sources said that the attack was carried out directly from Iranian territory, and included the launch of 12 cruise missiles and more than 20 drones, which scored precise direct hits on the targets. An analysis of aerial photographs released by the US administration shows that more cruise missiles were fired: there were approximately 19 hits on 17 structures in Abqaiq, and 2 structures in Khurais.

Even if there are still questions as to the tactical nature of the attack, particularly the type of weapons and from where they were launched, it appears that the attack itself is a significant step up in the campaign that Iran and its proxies are waging against the Arab Gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia. The Iranian threat to attack the global oil supply in response to the sanctions imposed on it is reinforced – even at this sensitive time when French President Macron is trying to obtain US agreement on partial compensation for Iran – and demonstrates Iran’s determination to exhibit its destructive power even at the risk of deterioration. At the same time, the Iranian regime’s assessment is presumably that the Saudis and the US administration will not be so quick to drag the region into a broad military campaign.

Possible Implications of the Events

At this stage, the extent of the long-term damage to the Saudi oil facilities remains unclear, and while some of the production capacity returned, full production capacity will take at least a few weeks. In order to deal with the increase in prices, the Saudis announced that they will release oil from their reserves, and President Trump announced that the US would work to temper the damage to the global oil market and will therefore consider releasing oil from the Strategic Energy Reserve, if necessary. However, if Abqaiq is shut down for a prolonged period, the market may in the longer term have difficulty in absorbing the shortage, and there may be a more significant increase in prices. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

INSS Expert: Trump Has Lost Control Of Iran Standoff
Yonah Jeremy Bob
Jerusalem Post, Sept. 23, 2019

US President Donald Trump has lost control of the nuclear standoff with Iran, Emily Landau, director of Arms Control at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. It is in that context that Landau says people should view Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s purported latest offer of “sanctions relief” from the US for “permanent monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities.”

On Monday, CNN’s Christiane Armanpour tweeted a photo of her interviewing Zarif, including highlighting his new offer as an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate between Washington and Tehran. At first glance, Zarif’s offer could seem like breaking some serious new ground. Until now the Islamic republic has demanded total sanctions relief before it makes any concessions. Zarif’s statement seemed to allude to possibly extending the 2015 Iran nuclear deal’s inspections regime beyond the life of the deal which, while not dealing with all of Washington’s criticism of the deal, could be viewed as showing substantive movement by the Iranians.

Landau said that this would be a total misunderstanding of what Zarif offered. “There is absolutely nothing new in that offer… it is a nothing hamburger,” said Landau.

She said that the wording Zarif used was highly specific and was a clear reference to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has been obligated by for dozens of years – long before the 2015 JCPOA. The Iran expert explained that this means that all Zarif offered was for Tehran to comply with its preexisting obligations, but nothing new at all.

Moreover, Landau said that even if it turns out that the foreign minister later decides to go beyond the tweeted statement and offer to extend the JCPOA inspection regime, this would not be a substantive change. Rather, she said that the main difference between the inspection regime and the older treaty regime is frequency of inspections. This does not, however, solve the problem of scope of inspections, said Landau.

She related that a concession regarding inspections would only be meaningful if Zarif was offering to finally allow the IAEA to inspect military nuclear facilities and other new nuclear sites that it had not disclosed to date. As long as Iran does not include those facilities, where much of their illicit nuclear program activities may still be ongoing, there is no real gain from simply extending the idea of having more frequent inspections in facilities where Iran is pretending to follow the rules. So, Landau said that, “There is no olive branch here. Iran has said they are willing to meet with Trump after saying emphatically that they wouldn’t meet with Trump in New York. All we learn is that they change their message on a daily basis… nothing can be taken as a sign of anything.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Guest Opinion: War with Iran is Just the Conflict Russia and China Want
Khosrow B. Semnani
Desert News, Sept. 20, 2019

It was an audacious assault on the world’s largest oil production plant. The Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia at Abqaiq and Khurais, the world’s largest processing and oil production centers, halted more than half of the country’s oil production. The loss of 5.7 million barrels a day of oil exports makes it the single largest oil supply disruption in history. This loss of oil represents nearly 5% of the world’s total daily oil supply. The U.S. and some of its allies have reasons to believe Iran’s political regime is responsible for the unprovoked attack and countermeasures need to be taken immediately.

Some countries are positioning themselves with Iran, such as China, which established a line of credit of $400 billion with Iran. This makes it possible, according to Iranian.com, “for Chinese investors to undertake projects in Iran without bidding.” This line of credit, at the same time, directly pays for access to political influence at the highest levels and grants access to oil at the lowest prices.

The Saudi military displays what they say are an Iranian cruise missile and drones used in recent attack on its oil industry at Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.

China has long enjoyed sweetheart economic deals with Iran and often takes advantage of its Iranian ally. After the nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the subsequent release of some of Iran’s blocked assets, China still held onto $22.5 billion of Iran’s reserves that were supposed to be financial guarantees for unnamed joint ventures projects and credits for imports. A war between Iran and the United States will give the Chinese government greater leverage to demand even more lucrative deals that will exploit Iran’s already dire economic chaos. Meanwhile, China silently devours Iran’s vast natural resources as U.S. sanctions further isolate the country from global markets.

Russia, too, is anxious to leverage Iranian desperation to its advantage. At a press conference on Sept. 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a longtime supporter of the Iranian regime, joked in front of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about how he was “ready to provide appropriate assistance” to Saudi Arabia after the attack. Putin suggested the Saudis buy Russian surface-to-air missiles like Iran and Turkey. Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg that this wasn’t just humor. “Putin was trying to persuade the entire Middle East that working with him is more effective than cooperating with the U.S.”

Just over a year ago, Russia was able to coerce Iran and three other countries that border the Caspian Sea (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) into giving Moscow access to major shares of water, oil and natural gas resources. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea likely dropped Iran’s previous 50% share down to less than 13% — sparking opposition at home. If Iran were at war with the U.S. and needed Russian support, Moscow would demand even further concessions from its “friend.”

The critical player in this drama, however, is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Commonly known as MBS, the crown prince seeks to maintain an image of strength and resilience. The Saudi ruling elite know that if they (or the United States on their behalf) initiate a military strike against Iran, there would be devastating counter-responses by Iran and its proxies against their own oil facilities. The latest attack may have temporarily shaken their oil production, but losing a few weeks of oil income is nothing compared to a protracted war that could cripple Saudi Arabia’s economy, drive away foreign investments and drag thousands of American troops into a regional or even global war. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Iran’s Radical Axis Is Intensifying Its Efforts to Build a War Machine Against Israel
Yaakov Lappin
BESA, Sept. 16, 2019

According to the IDF, Shiite militia operatives under the command of Iran’s Quds Force fired rockets toward Israel early on September 9 from the outskirts of Damascus. None of the projectiles crossed into Israel, with all of them falling inside Syria. (The Quds Force is the secret elite force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp [IRGC] operating around the globe.)

This attack appears to have been a response to a reported air strike on positions held by Iranian-backed Shiite militias at the Albukamal border crossing linking Syria and Iraq. The Albukamal crossing was the site of a May 2018 air strike, attributed by media reports to Israel. Iran has earmarked the crossing as a central link in its land corridor project, designed to enable Tehran to flood Syria and Lebanon with ground convoys carrying missiles, fighters, logistics, and military platforms. In its haste to respond, the Quds Force appeared to launch an ineffective rocket attack, perhaps reflecting the fact that Israel’s preventative campaign in Syria has succeeded in denying the Iranians the opportunity to entrench themselves militarily in Syria.

Meanwhile, the missile upgrade program led by Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor has intensified in recent years. This increased effort has seen Hezbollah build secret weapons sites across Lebanon for the purpose of converting inaccurate rockets of various ranges into precision guided missiles, according to new information released by the IDF.

This program, if continued without disruption, would constitute a new level of threat to Israel, in that it would give the Iranian-led Shiite radical axis the ability to send accurate missiles toward Israel’s sensitive strategic sites. In effect, it would mean Hezbollah could target Israel’s power plants, airports, seaports, military bases, and other critical sites. Israel has made it clear, in both deed and action, that it will not tolerate the buildup of such a capability. The rising tensions surrounding this program carry with them the risk of deterioration into regional conflict.

According to international media reports, Israeli explosive drones in late August targeted an Iranian machine in southern Beirut that produced high-grade fuel for guided ballistic missiles. Hezbollah vowed to respond by bringing down an Israeli drone — a threat it claimed to have fulfilled on September 9. The IDF said the drone crashed and no sensitive information was at risk.

Hezbollah’s September 1 decision to fire a volley of anti-tank guided Kornet missiles at an IDF base near the Lebanese border, narrowly missing an IDF vehicle, came days after Israel struck an Iranian-led terrorist cell in Syria in the final stages of preparing an explosive drone attack on Israel. Ultimately, these incidents reflect a deeper struggle in which Israel is determined to prevent Iran and its terror proxies from building up unacceptably dangerous levels of firepower that would place Israel’s civilian home front in grave danger.

Between 2013 and 2015, the IDF reported, Iran started smuggling ready-to-use precision missiles from Iran, via Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Most of these efforts were thwarted by “attacks attributed to Israel,” the IDF said, and the Iranian project failed. As a result, in 2016, Iran and Hezbollah shifted their tactics. Instead of transporting whole guided missiles, they decided they would convert existing imprecise rockets into guided missiles, and do this on Lebanese soil. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

For Further Reference:

Iran Asks West to Leave Persian Gulf: Politico, Sept. 22, 2019 — Iran’s president called Sunday on Western powers to leave the security of the Persian Gulf to regional nations led by Tehran, criticizing a new U.S.-led coalition patrolling the region’s waterways as nationwide parades showcased the Islamic Republic’s military arsenal.

Stage set for US, Iran showdown at UN General Assembly:  Hassan Rouhani, AlJazeera, Sept. 23, 2019 — The United States and Iran are set to put forward their competing visions of security in the Middle East to the United Nations General Assembly this week, with US President Donald Trump expected to address the gathering of world leaders on Tuesday and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a day later.

Attacks On Saudi Oil Facilities Highlight Vulnerability of Global Energy Security: Jareer Alass, The Arab Weekly, Sept. 19, 2019 —  The coordinated and precise drone and missile attacks on two of the most critical pieces of oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, which immediately halved the kingdom’s crude production and knocked out 5% of global oil supplies, raise a large question about Riyadh’s long-standing claim of being the world’s most reliable crude supplier.

Without Bolton, Trump Can Now Go Soft on Iran:  Eli Lake, Bloomberg, Sept. 10, 2019 — President Donald Trump’s decision to part ways with his national security adviser, John Bolton, was overdetermined.

Iran Is Already Losing: Micha’el Tanchum, Foreign Policy, Sept. 23, 2019 — Earlier this month, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure was attacked, forcing the world’s top oil exporter to shut down half of its production—marking the single largest disruption in history.