Tensions are rising again in the Middle East after an explosives-laden drone and ballistic missile fired by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen targeted Saudi Aramco facilities at the Saudi port of Ras Tanura and in the city of Dhahran early on March 7, 2021.
The Aramco-operated facilities were hit on at least 17 points of impact in what experts and media described as sophisticated volleys of aerial attacks.
The Yemen war is but one of several proxy conflicts that F-UK-US coalition is currently sponsoring to hit Shi’ite and Iranian interests in the region.
The attacks on the world’s largest petroleum company pushed up crude oil prices, now hovering around US$70 a barrel, to levels not seen since 2018.
The spike in prices and potential for tit-for-tat attacks has cast a new cloud over hopes that the global economy is poised to emerge from the damage wrought by the global pandemic.
The attacks also up the ante in the ongoing confrontation between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s multi-sided conflict, and have sparked fresh doubts that the USA and Iran will quickly resume the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal abandoned by the previous Donald Trump administration.
Satellite images showed the storage tanks were hit from a northwest direction, which means the attack was probably launched from Iran. Yemen is the southern neighbor of Saudi Arabia. Iran has denied any role in the attacks.
Iran is threatened by Gulf-Israeli rapprochement after the Abraham Accords, relative GCC unity after the al-Ula agreement, and the lack of sanctions relief ahead of a potential JCPOA nuclear deal renegotiation,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Strategic Vacuums program in the Human Security unit at the Newlines Institute.
Additionally, recent decisions from CENTCOM to identify alternative basing options in Saudi Arabian ports and air bases have created an incentive for Iran to pressure the Kingdom and create a sense of insecurity in an attempt to dissuade a more expanded US military footprint in the Persian Gulf.
By encouraging its proxy, the Houthi’s, to bump up attacks on critical targets on Saudi Arabian soil, Iran may be trying to gain leverage over the US in upcoming nuclear negotiations, even though they are not obviously imminent.
Although talks do not look likely right now, Iran is certainly trying to leverage the US and its partners to try and put a level of unconditional sanctions relief on the table before talks begin.
Other commentators believe Saudi Arabia, despite sustaining damage from the raids on its oil facilities, airports and infrastructure by the Houthi’s, has come to the understanding that it doesn’t behoove the kingdom to retaliate militarily against Iran.
The recent signals given by the hijacked US administration to the Saudis, including ending military support for offensive operations in Yemen, its will to solve the crisis through diplomacy and the subsequent re-calibrating of the USA-KSA relationship, are clear signs of this shift of policy in Washington.
Other Middle East pundits share the view that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to countenance the costs of a new war by rising to the bait of Tehran.
“The cost of war could be very high for Saudi Arabia and actually threaten the stability and integrity of the state itself, so Saudi Arabia is unlikely to want to escalate this to that level.
While the Saudi-led coalition is estimated by some to have spent a colossal average of US$5-6 billion per month ($462 billion in total) on its military operations in Yemen over the past seven years, supporting the Houthi’s has cost Iran a comparative pittance.
Some unconfirmed sources put the Iranian expenditure in Yemen at a paltry $30 million a month. This equals the total investment of about $3 billion for Tehran.
Yet even this apparently small expenditure is a huge undertaking for Tehran, considering its plummeting currency, faltering oil revenues and blocked access to foreign assets due to the US sanctions.
The war in Yemen is one of the fault lines making a rapprochement between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the F-UK-US coalition is far-fetched.
The two countries severed bilateral relations in January 2016, when the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad were violently attacked by a mob protesting against the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the Persian Gulf kingdom.
Tensions between the two Middle East powerhouses have been ratcheting dramatically ever since and show no signs of abating in sight of the March 7 attack on Saudi oil fields.
It’s not clear what will bring about a reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but if the hostile F-UK-US coalition stopped supplying weapons and components to the Saudi’s, that would be a major step towards reducing tensions throughout the region.
Without solving the region’s wider problems and getting peace deals in Yemen and Syria, the opportunity costs of not participating in this behavior are too high.
The decades-long standoff between Tehran and Riyadh does not seem to be on a de-escalatory route. An agreement that addresses Iran-backed freedom activities in the region could be a start of de-escalation. However, we are still far away from this point.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point WW III News 2021.