On 14 September, state-owned Saudi Aramco’s oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in the Eastern Province were the target of a sophisticated drone and cruise missile attack. The Houthis of Yemen were quick to claim responsibility for “Operation Deterrent Balance 2”, which more than halved Saudi Arabia’s oil output and caused a surge in oil prices by 20 per cent at one point.
If true, this would be their most significant and daring attack in the Kingdom to date. A month ago, they carried out the first “Operation…” using 10 drones against the Shaybah oil fields in south-east Saudi Arabia near the border it shares with the UAE.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said that new drones had been used, which likely refers to the long-range Samad-3, unveiled officially on 7 July by the Supreme Political Council and named after former Council president Saleh Ali Al-Samad who was killed in a Saudi-led coalition drone strike last year. The same “suicide UAV” Samad-3 was used by the Houthis to strike Abu Dhabi’s International Airport last year.
However, dismissing the Houthi claims, both the Saudis and the US are intent on laying the blame on Iran. Describing the events as an “act of war”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated explicitly that Iran carried out the operation and requested all nations to “unequivocally condemn Iran’s attack”, thus leaving no room for an alternative narrative. US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been less keen to label Iran as the perpetrator.
For its part, Iran has flatly denied the allegation and reiterated Yemen’s right to defend itself against foreign aggression. Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implied that Saudi Arabia was to blame for dropping bombs on Yemen in the first place. Close US allies such as Japan and France have also confirmed that there is no actual evidence of direct Iranian involvement; even Gulf neighbour and coalition partner the UAE has not backed the allegation.
Saudi Ministry of Defence spokesman Colonel Turki Al-Malki revealed to the press on Wednesday the wreckage of drones and missiles which he said were fired from the north or north-west. He told reporters that the attacks were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran.” However, when pressed by journalists, he too failed to state explicitly that the attacks emanated from Iranian territory.
One of the most far-fetched claims thus far has been from US investigators suggesting that the Saudis have recovered a “pristine circuit board” from a cruise missile retrieved from the attack site. This is reminiscent of the claims that one of the 9/11 hijackers’ passports survived the attack on the World Trade Centre.
What the Saudis did state, though, was that 18 drones were launched against the Abqaiq oil facility and seven cruise missiles targeted the Khurais oil fields, three of which fell short. Satellite images provided by the US government of the attack sites revealed at least 17 separate impact points.
However, this is not sufficient evidence that the attacks came from Iranian territory. Retired General Mark Hertling told CNN that the images “really don’t show anything, other than pretty good accuracy on the strike of the oil tanks.”
Furthermore, the evidence made public does not suggest that the attacks came from the north or north-west (which would have us believe that the source was either Iran-aligned Iraqi territory or from south-west Iran, which would be north-east of the attack sites). They also do not point to the south, which would be the most likely trail leading to the Houthis in Yemen.
It appears more likely that the targets were struck from the west when one looks at the close-up images of the tanks from the Abqaiq facility against the arrow indicating due north. This may corroborate an announcement by Houthi spokesman Saree following the attack, that after careful intelligence gathering and monitoring, it was implemented with “the cooperation of honourable and free men within the Kingdom”, a likely reference to the 15-20 per cent of the population who form the Saudi Shia community concentrated mainly in the oil rich but socio-economically deprived east of the country.
Dr Stephen Byren, writing in the Asia Times, is of the opinion that the Houthis did not carry out the attack, but he certainly believes that, “Saudi Arabia was infiltrated by well-trained operators who were close to the targets and were able to guide the terminal phase of the attacking cruise missiles (and maybe the drones) via video transmitted from the missiles and drones.”
This theory adds credence to the idea of local involvement. Arguably, the targets were carefully selected. With regard to the Abqaiq oil processing plant, at least 11 of the 17 points of impact were tanks containing liquid gas; the piping, it has been suggested, was configured such that any damage to one or a group of tanks, would not affect the overall production process, as it would simply be re-routed to the next tank. However, with all tanks in this particular area being taken out, production was interrupted. “The targeting for this attack was done with detailed knowledge of the process and its dependencies… they may have been launched from within Saudi Arabia.”
This is not to say that Iran did not have a rational motive to carry out the attack. With increased sanctions and external attempts to cripple its economy and ability to export oil, from Tehran’s perspective if Iran is not able to sell oil, then no one else should be. It could also be interpreted as intended to inflict a humiliating blow on the US.
It is their advanced weaponry and defence systems that the Saudis are ultimately employing and relying upon for their state security. The Gulf, after all, is one of the most monitored areas in the world, with US-supplied radar systems and missiles facing Iran, not only in Saudi territory, but also in other Gulf neighbours and on US ships fitted with Aegis air ballistic defence systems. If true, this attack exposes the failure of the US defence systems as deployed there.
The question that must be asked is this: how were almost two dozen missiles and drones not detected, especially if they came from Iran? A former US Navy officer who has experience in the region told Business Insider, “It’s very hard to imagine a salvo of 17 shots from Iranian territory not being picked up via some land and sea radars.”
If there is concrete evidence of Iranian involvement, it should be available from US radar data gathered in the Gulf. A NATO military official posted to Saudi Arabia acknowledged that such data can be obtained easily if the US wanted it, but, “If they haven’t released that info, it’s because either they don’t have it or the Saudis asked for a delay for domestic political reasons.”
One Twitter user on a blog about Iranian geopolitical issues shared an image which purportedly illustrates the reach of Saudi Arabia’s air defence systems near the affected areas.
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