Aramco Attacks: A Military Escalation or Diplomatic Negotiation?
The high-profile drone and missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities on September 14 represented a watershed in hostilities between Saudi Arabia and its nearby enemies. The Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, yet the U.S. government, European powers, and the Saudis blame the Islamic Republic of Iran. Investigations are underway while various experts suggest that the attacks could have originated from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, or possibly even within Saudi Arabia.
Against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session in late September, which did not lead to any easing of friction in U.S.-Iran relations, the threats of an escalation of tension into a large-scale military confrontation are real.
Impact on the Oil Market
Thus far, the repercussions for the oil market have been severe, which is one of the main reasons why the Aramco attacks have received high levels of international attention. The attack on the oil refineries and the consequent shutdown because of raging fires triggered the biggest jump in oil prices in almost 30 years. A full return to normal oil outputs could take several months.
OPEC is currently assessing the impact, but it may be too soon or uncertain for its members to take any action on raising production or holding a meeting, the UAE energy minister and other sources said. Without a doubt, the Aramco attacks call into question Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue leading the cartel and keeping it together in the future.
The global markets, ranging from the developed to developing countries, have been uniformly affected by the attacks.
International Reactions and Responses
Condemnation by Western countries, led by Washington, was swift in blaming Iran. The American president responded with overt threats of armed retaliation. The argument by the Saudi-led coalition and the U.S. president and his Secretary of State relies on the assumption that the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons, but it falls short of blaming a particular group such as an armed Yemeni and or Iraqi faction.
Neighboring Qatar, which has been under a Saudi/Emirati-imposed blockade since June 5, 2017, condemned the Aramco attacks in their aftermath and Emir Tamim’s speech at the UNGA stressed that the security of the Gulf and the wider world are extremely interconnected and that all states in the region must work together for the good of stability and peace.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel seems to be prepared for any U.S.-Iran confrontation over a strike on the Saudi oil plant. Russia has said that it was unacceptable to discuss possible military retaliation against Iran and that using the Aramco attacks as a justification for increasing tensions in the region would be counterproductive.
Unsurprisingly, the Aramco attacks which followed former John Bolton’s abrupt ouster, demonstrated how quickly violence in the Middle East can spoil expected opportunities for diplomatic openings, which some analysts were optimistic about occurring at the UNGA in light of President Donald Trump’s hyper-hawkish national security adviser leaving his administration.
Yet the UNGA session occurred without any watershed moment in American-Iranian diplomacy. On the contrary, the session showcased the extent to which U.S.-Iran ties have deteriorated. In Trump’s speech, he said that the government in Tehran is one of today’s gravest threats to nations worldwide. Meanwhile, his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, used the occasion to tell Riyadh that the key to securing the Kingdom is to cease bombing Yemen, rather than counting on America’s deployment of extra troops. Rouhani also vowed that Iran will continue resisting U.S. plans for continued Washington’s weaponization of financial sanctions.
The Iranian president’s articulated position was that if the U.S. meets Washington’s commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), then Iran will be open to negotiating a more-for-more deal that could be rebranded with a different name.
Irrespective of any conclusive evidence of the attacks’ origins and sources, the vulnerability of the Saudi homeland has now important implications for the course of relations in the region. Sometimes in stalemated conflicts, exposure of vulnerabilities on the ground triggers a return to the negotiating table with parties willing to negotiate in good faith.
If the Aramco attacks result in Saudi Arabia and its regional adversaries entering roundtable talks that can eventually lead to an easing of tensions, that would be a silver lining that comes with the unprecedented drone and missile strikes against Saudi oil facilities.