Analysis: Implications of the latest Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities

Those who attack sensitive Saudi sites with missiles and drones can do the same to Israeli strategic facilities.

By Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, BESA Center

The past two weeks have seen a considerable escalation in the fighting between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in Yemen. The latter recently succeeded in wresting extensive lands near the city of Mar’ib from Yemeni government forces, and the Saudi air force responded by hitting numerous targets in Yemen, inflicting casualties and wreaking destruction.

At the beginning of the month, ballistic missiles and drones struck the Saudi oil-loading facility—the largest in the world—at Ras Tanura, north of the port of Dammam on the Persian Gulf. It was from this port that the Helios Ray, which belongs to Israeli businessman Rami Ungar, sailed and was attacked on February 25 in international waters in the Gulf, forcing it to retreat to the port of Dubai for repairs.

The Houthis took responsibility for launching the missiles and drones at Ras Tanura, just as they took responsibility for the major strike on other Aramco facilities in September 2019, which tied up about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil-exporting capacity for weeks. Sometime after that strike, information leaked that the launch had not been carried out from Yemen but from Iraq, and possibly even from Iranian territory.

The recent attack was very similar to the one in September 2019. Like that one, it was a blow to the most important, sensitive, and vulnerable Saudi targets (oil facilities), it was conducted with Iranian missiles and drones, it was launched without warning, and the Houthis claimed responsibility. As a result of the attack, global oil prices shot up to about $70 a barrel, a consequence that slightly improved the outlook for Iran’s economy.

Ras Tanura is about 1,000 kilometers from Yemen, which increases the time the missiles and drones would have had to be airborne and also increases the likelihood that they would have been detected and intercepted by the kingdom’s air defense systems. An attacker always seeks to shorten ranges, which decreases both flight time and chance of interception. Hence it appears that this time, too, the launch was from Iraq, and perhaps even directly from Iran, its neighbor across the Gulf.

It is highly likely that the world’s intelligence organizations know the exact location of the launch but are keeping quiet so as not to a) reveal that they know details the Iranians are trying to hide; b) compromise information sources; or c) embarrass the US administration, which seeks to return to negotiations with Iran and ease the burden of sanctions.

Why, then, are the Houthis assuming responsibility for an attack on Saudi Arabia that they did not perpetrate (if that is indeed the case)? There are a number of possible answers. One is that Tehran expected and perhaps even demanded that they take responsibility so Iran would be spared punishment. Another is that the Houthis wanted to flaunt the achievement to the masses, boost their support in Yemen, and sow fear in the hearts of their opponents both within and outside Yemen.

Riyadh, for its part, tried to downplay the attack with a laconic announcement by its Energy Ministry about a strike on the Ras Tanura facility “by a plane that came from the sea.” There are three points to make here. First, the Energy Ministry, not the Defense Ministry, was the one to issue the statement, implying that this is a problem for the energy industry and not a security problem. Second, the “plane” is described as coming from the sea—that is, from Iran, which lies across the Gulf, or from vessels that were sailing in the Gulf. And third, Saudi Arabia is not buying the Houthis’ claim of responsibility as they are located 1,000 kilometers southwest of Ras Tanura while “the sea” is east of it.

It is likely that Saudi intelligence knows perfectly well who attacked the kingdom and from where, but is choosing not to reveal this information. There could be two main reasons for this: first, the Saudis will not have to respond; and second, the information may have made its way to Saudi intelligence via a foreign intelligence counterpart on condition that it not be publicized or transferred to a third party without the source’s agreement.

The fact that Saudi Arabia is not attacking Iran in response to the ongoing strikes on Saudi strategic targets stems from the balance of power between the two countries. From a military standpoint, the kingdom is substantially weaker than Iran. In addition, the fact that Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic standing is better than Iran’s has not brought the countries of the world—not even the US during Trump’s tenure—to offer it active assistance. The world is willing to provide the kingdom with antimissile and antiaircraft systems but will apparently not dispatch air, naval, or ground forces to salvage it. The Saudis understand the balance of power vis-à-vis Iran very well, and so they continue to absorb Iranian blows quietly. They are well aware of the huge price they would pay in a direct war with Iran, and therefore have not openly blamed Iran for the attacks.

Israel must take the attack on Saudi Arabia seriously, as those who attack sensitive sites in Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones can also strike Israeli strategic facilities. If no one takes responsibility for such an attack, it will be hard for Israel to retaliate.

The last thing the Biden administration wants is an overt war between Iran and any country. As long as such a war lasts, the US cannot negotiate with the Iranians on a return to the nuclear agreement, their ballistic missile program, or their interference in the security of other countries. This approach by the Biden administration is meant to constrain—or, preferably, freeze—any Israeli plan for a direct attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Covert operations would probably not be acceptable to the administration either, particularly if they involve shortening the life expectancy of one scientist or another.

The most important conclusion Israel should draw from the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities is that Riyadh is incapable of defending itself effectively, and any diplomatic progress with Saudi Arabia must be based on that fact. With all due respect to Saudi Arabia’s high and honored status in Arab and international arenas, any strategic reliance on Riyadh must be cautious, restrained, and level-headed, taking into account that the kingdom has a difficult time defending itself.

Saudi Arabia’s current relations with Israel are much more in the Saudi interest than in Israel’s, so there is no reason why Israel should sacrifice its own vital interests—for example, sovereignty over parts of the homeland— on the altar of relations with a kingdom that is afraid to call an enemy by its name even when that enemy attacks it again and again. If, one day, the establishment of Israeli-Saudi ties is declared, one hopes they will include a “secret appendix” that ensures that Israel is in no way obligated to defend Saudi Arabia from “any enemy that is in the sea.”