Why Evidence of Iran’s Role in Attack Doesn’t Matter
Tehran is equipped to take us off-guard at any moment. Questions should focus on how and why.
The stunning success of Saturday’s drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s main oil export processing center has brought the Iran crisis to a new and pivotal point. It has demonstrated that Iran has significant capability to pressure the United States to end its war on the Iranian economy, and has the will to bring it to the next level.
A set of complex issues related to different Iranian and Houthi weapons systems and other forensic evidence surrounding the destruction at Abqaiq will be the center of attention in the coming days. The forensic evidence presented by the administration may be weak or persuasive, but in either case, it would be a strategic mistake for those who oppose the war in Yemen and America’s involvement in it to make this the story. That will only allow the war state to obscure or confuse the central political issues that must be addressed now: why did this attack happen? And what does it portend for a situation that was already one small crisis away from a very serious Middle East war?
Whether the Abqiaq attack was a combined Houthi-Iranian operation or a completely Iranian one is of a secondary measure of importance. It is obvious that whatever the precise nature of the strike, Iran likely played a role in both creating the drones and/or cruise missiles involved and in the strategic rationale for it. But one can argue that both the Houthis and Iran had legitimate reasons for carrying out such a strike.
For the Houthis, it was to force Saudi Arabia to stop its systematic war on the civilian population in the Houthi-controlled zone of Yemen and its denial of its ability to obtain basic goods by air and sea; for the Iranians it was to force the United States to end its blockade of Iran’s economy through pressure on Iran’s customers. Saudi Arabia has violated the most fundamental principles of international law in its aggressive war to change the regime in Yemen, since it was not under attack by the Houthis when it launched that war. Efforts to end the conflict through resistance, negotiation, and strikes on lesser targets in Saudi Arabia had failed to halt what has been broadly regarded around the world as a criminal war.
For Iran, on the other hand, the Abqiaq strike was an absolutely necessary step to signal to the United States that it cannot not continue its assault on the Iranian economy without very serious repercussions. And the timing of the strike is almost certainly the result of the sequence of aggressive, offensive U.S. moves against Iran’s most vital interests ever since the Trump administration tore up the deal on Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed U.S. sanctions.
The United States has carried the practice of secondary boycott (sanctions against states trading with a state the U.S. government has targeted as an enemy) to put pressure on Iranian policy for nearly a quarter century, beginning with the passage of the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996. Now the Trump administration has pushed the use of that instrument to its ultimate conclusion by seeking to reduce Iran’s oil exports—its single largest source of export earnings—to “zero,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proudly declared last April. The administration further plans to reduce Iran’s gas and metal (iron, steel, aluminum, and copper) exports to a minimum as well. In his public presentation of the famous “12 demands” on Iran of May 2018, Pompeo said that the real purpose of the entire exercise was to force the Iranian people to rid the United States of the adversary regime in Tehran.
The Trump policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran thus represents an extreme violation of a state’s right to participate in the global economy, without which a modern state cannot survive. It is the equivalent in trade terms of a naval blockade to starve a nation, and it would be universally recognized as an act of war if carried out by any other state in the world. Iran calls it “economic terrorism.”
In the context of these larger legal and moral issues, the question of the respective roles of Iran and the Houthis in the strike is a matter not just of tactical and propaganda significance but of fundamental principle. The shutdown of Abqiaq is the clearest signal possible from Islamic Republic that, as it has stated on several occasions, if the United States insists on depriving it from being able to sell oil, it will not allow the rest of the world’s oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
The Aqiaq strike is also a dramatic demonstration of Iran’s ability to surprise the United States strategically and upsetting its political-military plans. Iran has spent the last two decades preparing for an eventual confrontation with the United States, and the result is a new generation of drones and cruise missiles that give Iran the ability to counter far more effectively any U.S. effort to destroy its military assets and to target U.S. bases across the Middle East.
The United States was apparently taken by surprise when when Iran shot down a high-altitude but slow-moving U.S. prototype naval variant of the 737-size Global Hawk surveillance drone with a 3rd Khordad missile variant of the Ra’adsurface to air missile system first deployed a few years ago. And Iran’s air defense system has been continually upgraded, beginning with the Russian S-300 system it received in 2016. Iran also just unveiled in 2019 its Bavar-373 air defense system, which it regards as closer to the Russian S-400 system coveted by India and Turkey than to the S-300 system.
Then there is Iran’s development of a fleet of military drones, which has prompted one analyst to call Iran a “drone superpower.” Its drone accomplishments reportedly include the Shahed-171 “stealth drone” with precision-guided missiles, and the Shahed-129, which it reverse engineered from the U.S. Sentinel RQ-170 and the MQ-1 Predator.
Iran has exaggerated its military technological accomplishments in the past, especially when it felt dangerously vulnerable. But analysts are taking this generation of Iranian systems very seriously, which they see as having far-reaching implications for American policy. It’s highly questionable that anyone has given Trump a briefing on that reality, however.
The urgent task for opponents of any coming war is not to be distracted by the issue of forensic evidence pointing to Iranian responsibility. It’s to focus on the urgent problems with American policy that are being swept under the political and media rug.