September 18, 2019

IntelBrief: Are There Still ‘Red Lines’ in the Middle East?

This Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, satellite image provided by NASA Worldview shows the fires following Yemen Houthi rebels claiming a drone attack on two major oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia.  (NASA Worldview via AP).
  • The September 14 strike on Saudi critical energy infrastructure by Iran or one of its allies directly challenges U.S. regional and global interests.
  • The attack demonstrates Iran’s ability to cause severe damage through precision strikes.
  • The incident illustrates that U.S. sanctions are not succeeding in limiting the threat to the region posed by Iran.    
  • U.S. considerations of military action against Iran still face the same drawbacks that have led President Donald Trump to refrain from retaliatory strikes in recent months.


Despite claims of responsibility by Houthi rebels in Yemen, U.S. officials assert that the September 14, 2019 strike on critical Saudi infrastructure in Khurais and Abqaiq was likely the work of Iran. Even if the attacking cruise missiles and/or drones were not launched from Iranian soil, the strikes were almost certainly initiated by an Iran-backed faction and therefore reflect Iran’s intent. The strike presents a stark threat to U.S. regional and global interests by knocking out, at least temporarily, more than one-third of Saudi oil production and spiking world oil prices by more than 10%. Although the United States, because of the expansion of domestic production, is far less dependent on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf than a decade ago, U.S. allies in Europe and Asia remain highly reliant on those supplies and thus vulnerable to any disruptions. 

By all accounts, the strikes were unexpectedly precise, indicating that U.S. analysts have been perhaps underestimating Iran’s ability to produce weaponry that can be guided accurately. This capability demonstrates that Iran is able to project power throughout the region and harm U.S. regional interests broadly.  The vulnerability of critical infrastructure to such attacks was also laid bare. The hesitancy of Saudi Arabia to immediately blame Tehran shows the degree to which Iran has outflanked Riyadh in their war by proxy, insofar as the Kingdom is now surrounded by capable Iranian allies to the south and the north. Some of these proxies, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias, have been successfully nurtured by Iran over many years, into major power centers in the countries they inhabit. And Iran has been supplying these allies with increasingly sophisticated short-range missiles and arms drones, to the point where Israel has stepped up a bombing campaign against Iranian shipments and infrastructure in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.   

The incident directly refutes recent statements by the Trump administration that its policy of applying ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran through economic sanctions is succeeding in reducing the threat. Washington has based its assertions on signs that Iran and its key allies, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah, are acknowledging financial difficulties. However, as demonstrated by the attack on Saudi infrastructure, neither Iran nor any of its regional allies has curtailed any of their operations because of financial or other difficulties. And sanctions have not prevented Iran from assisting the regime of President Bashar Al Assad of Syria in recapturing almost all of the territory once lost to an armed rebellion. Sanctions have affected Iran economically, but they have not accomplished their key stated objective of changing Iran’s regional behavior.    

The attack raises the possibility of U.S. retaliatory strikes, either alone or with Saudi Arabia and other partners. President Trump initially appeared to foreshadow U.S. retaliation by stating that the United States was ‘locked and loaded’ to respond. However, he later appeared to revert to prior formulations about the need for a new nuclear deal with Iran that would resolve the broader U.S.-Iranian disputes. And he still has not categorically ruled out a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during this month’s U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. He restated that the United States does not want war with Iran. Apparently, the same considerations that caused President Trump, in July, to authorize but then cancel a retaliatory strike on Iran are at work in the current crisis. Iran has demonstrated its ability to expand any conflict and damage U.S. interests, even if that causes additional destruction in Iran itself. Iran’s newly apparent military capabilities and intent to use them present political and strategic costs and risks that President Trump seems unwilling to bear.  Whether the administration is willing to ease sanctions on Iran in an effort to negotiate a new nuclear deal or other understanding with Iran that avoids war remains an open question.      


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