It’s become a familiar story: A U.S. ally in the Middle East is attacked. Iran is accused of responsibility, but it’s nearly impossible to prove. Talk of retaliation builds in Washington, but nothing ever comes of it, and the situation returns to the status quo until the next crisis.
On Saturday, a large-scale drone attack struck a key Saudi oil facility, disrupting about half the kingdom’s oil capacity. The strike resulted in the suspension of millions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas output, and caused a spike in global energy prices. U.S. officials are pointing the finger at Iran. While the strike was more sophisticated and damaging than previous attacks, open military conflict with Iran is still probably—though by no means certainly—off the table. The question is, how many more of these incidents can the region’s uneasy status quo withstand?
The ongoing conflict pits Iran and its local proxies and allied militias against an uneasy alliance of the U.S., the Sunni Arab Gulf States, and Israel. While the conflict isn’t new, tensions have ratcheted up and become more violent since Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year. Since then, there have been multiple attacks against oil tankers in the area—for which the U.S. blamed Iran, but Iran denied—as well as strikes near U.S. facilities in Iraq. Yemen’s Iran-supported Houthi rebels have also claimed responsibility for several attacks on Saudi Arabia, including several targeting oil infrastructure.
Though the Houthis have taken responsibility for Saturday’s attacks, in a series of tweets, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran was behind them and that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” U.S. officials have shared photos they say suggest that a combination of drones and cruise missiles were used—which would be more sophisticated than previous Houthi attacks—and that they may have been launched from Iraqi or Iranian territory. Iran has denied responsibility.
It’s not quite as simple a question as whether “the Houthis did it” or “Iran did it.” The Houthis, who are fighting against the Saudi and U.S.-backed government in Yemen, are sometimes referred to as an Iranian proxy, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The Houthis follow Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam separate from the Twelver branch of Iran’s regime. While they’ve received weapons, money, and fuel from Iran, the relationship to Tehran is generally considered a little less direct than that of groups like Hezbollah or Iraq’s militias. At times, the Houthis have even defied their Iranian backers.
It’s likely that Iran at least provided the weapons used, and plausible it played some role in planning the attack, though proving that is going to be extremely difficult. That’s the point: Iran has generally stopped short of actions that could provoke a direct military conflict with the United States. It attacks U.S. allies in the region rather than the U.S. itself and always maintains plausible deniability.
In a characteristically strange tweet on Sunday, which didn’t mention Iran, Trump suggested that he was waiting for Saudi Arabia to tell him how to respond:
Trump also claimed to have been “cocked and loaded” to launch strikes on Iran following the shoot-down of a U.S. drone last June but says he opted not to at the last minute because of the possibility of large numbers of casualties.
Could this time be different? Trump has made clear he doesn’t want a direct war any more than Iran does, and last week’s dismissal of National Security Adviser John Bolton, the administration’s most extreme Iran hawk, might have been a sign that he hopes to give diplomacy a chance. The latest incident comes amid speculation that Trump would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions—though Trump called this “fake news” on Sunday.
But the attack was a sign that a Kim Jong-un style breakthrough between Washington and Tehran is unlikely. The situation has deteriorated too far for that, and this deterioration is the predictable result of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal, and his subsequent habit of giving the Israelis and the Saudis carte blanche in the region.
As the U.S. considers options to respond to the attacks, it won’t help that at this point, U.S. allies are deeply skeptical of American claims. Even if the U.S. had conclusive proof of Iranian involvement, the Europeans are past the point of wanting to hear it.
In this instance, the Saudis aren’t yet backing up the administration’s confident claim that Iran was the staging ground for the attack. The Trump administration really is all on its own.
The conflict between Iran and its enemies is too violent at this point to be described as a cold war, and it’s not as if the violence is only going one way: Israel has recently stepped up a campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria and, for the first time, in Iraq.
It’s more of a “warm war” in which all the actors have a vested interest in keeping the violence below a certain level. But the situation is hardly stable, and the Trump administration is doing little to keep it from boiling over.