Stop Drilling, We’ve Struck Oil: US, Iran, and Saudi Oil Strikes

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On September 14, drone attacks struck two major oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company that runs both plants, the attacks disrupted roughly 5% of the world’s daily oil supply, resulting in a 10% increase in barrel prices. 

While Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, both Washington and Saudi Arabia had reason to believe that they were launched by Iran. Naturally, the strikes exacerbated tensions between the United States and Iran, opening wounds that have yet to heal from June of this year, when Iran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone. These tensions have been on the rise since May 2018, when the United States withdrew from the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. In response to the recent oilfield attacks and as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration vowed to impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank in addition to sending military forces to Saudi Arabia. 

Historically, the United States has seen itself as a necessary mediator in the Middle East––but to what extent does this serve to provoke tensions even further? The United States’ tendency to jump quickly to Saudi Arabia’s defense has sparked some controversy. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi points out, the U.S. seems to be putting its own values at stake by turning a blind eye to the ongoing atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia, especially as we near the anniversary of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (not to mention ongoing Saudi-incited violence in Yemen). There is an apparent lack of accountability. The US is absolving––if not perpetuating––Saudi Arabia’s actions. 

Commenting on the most recent attacks, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Barbara A. Lead talks about the importance of re-establishing deterrence (the threat of use of force)––which currently seems to be ineffective given Iran’s disinterested response to the situation. Iran, despite denying responsibility for the attacks, has refused to negotiate until Washington puts an end to both its maximum pressure campaign and its crippling economic sanctions. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated that the country will continue to resist pressure from the U.S., and has even entertained the prospect of war if the U.S. decides to take military action, though this has yet to happen so far. In a televised speech commemorating the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani took the time to respond to the U.S.’ decision to send military forces to Saudi Arabia, deeming foreign presence a threat to the security of both Iran and the region as a whole. As of now, President Rouhani has refused to engage in bilateral talks with Trump, while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has declined an invitation to the White House. 

Interestingly, the recent oilfield attacks coincide with the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, where Washington, Tehran, and Riyadh are all due to speak. However theatrical, the congregation of all three parties in the ornate chambers of the Security Council seems fundamental to the question of whether a diplomatic solution, like the one Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is insisting on, will prevail. Addressing the General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump underscored the need for diplomatic talks with Iran, yet also threatened to tighten sanctions further if Iran continues its refusal to cooperate.

That said, despite sanctions imposed and its military deployed, the U.S. did not decide to attack Iran in June, instead calling off its retaliatory strike at the eleventh hour. The aftermath of going forth with such a decision would have been domestically inconceivable. With upcoming presidential elections, Trump would not want his incumbency to work against him by waging a war. Tehran likely realizes this and is, therefore, afforded the luxury of continued resistance. That is, unless we entertain the possibility of Trump launching a diversionary strike following his impeachment inquiry, as Bill Clinton is said to have done when he struck Iraq in 1998 to divert attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Prospects of war aside, the September 14drone attacks testify to the fact that oil continues to be a determinant of power in the region: by violating Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in particular, Iran dealt a blow to Saudi Arabia’s source of wealth and power. The oilfield incident also highlights the challenge of delineating the U.S.’ ever-changing role in the region: is it really deescalating tensions, or is it merely pursuing its own interests? Either way, it is becoming increasingly difficult to envision the region––and the aftermath of events like the oil strikes––without US presence. In what way would the scales of regional power tip?