An attack against a Saudi pipeline following on the heels of alleged sabotage of four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf has raised both concerns and questions on the Arabian Peninsula. While other explanations for the timing and targets of the two incidents are possible, the attacks could herald the beginning of a broader campaign of disruption directed by Iran, whose oil exports are being squeezed off by U.S. sanctions, that would put nearly a quarter of the world's crude oil supply at risk of being attacked.
For the second time in three days, attackers have targeted oil and natural gas operations on the Arabian Peninsula. On May 14, Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia's energy minister, confirmed that two drones launched by the Yemen-based Houthis had targeted two pumping stations along Saudi Arabia's East-West pipeline, which carries oil from fields in Eastern province to the Red Sea. The resulting fire at one of the stations prompted the pipeline, which has a capacity of 5 million barrels per day of crude oil, to suspend operations as damage assessments are made.
This follows a May 12 incident off the coast near the UAE port of Fujairah that damaged four oil tankers, including two Saudi-owned vessels. Taken together, the attacks raise questions over whether oil and gas infrastructure in the region is being targeted either directly by Iran or by Iranian-linked regional militias in retribution for U.S. attempts to reduce Iranian oil and gas exports to zero. The East-West pipeline provides Saudi Arabia with a critical alternative for exporting oil that allows it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that Iran has threatened to shut down. The Emirati port is a key refueling port for transport ships that sits near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
A Unique Attack
What makes the May 14 attack particularly notable was that it happened deep inside Saudi territory. Most successful attacks conducted by the Houthis have previously occurred near the Saudi-Yemen border. Short-range rocket, missile and drone attacks in Jizan province — including those targeting Saudi Arabian Oil Co. (Saudi Aramco) installations in the cross-border region — are relatively common. Houthi attacks have also taken aim at Saudi Aramco tankers and other maritime traffic a few kilometers off the Yemeni coast in the Red Sea. But at its nearest point, the Saudi pipeline runs roughly 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) away from the Saudi-Yemen border, and that is where the attacks occurred.
The success of the attacks points to the growing capabilities of longer-range Houthi drones (as well as possibly to increased support by the Quds Force, a unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that handles operations outside Iranian borders). Over the past year, Houthis have used several of their longer-range drones, designated as "UAV-X" by the United Nations, with an estimated maximum range of between 1,200 and 1,500 kilometers, putting most of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates within striking distance. This drone model fits the mold of what could have been used in the pipeline attack. The successful attack demonstrates that the Houthis — or perhaps IRGC-trained personnel in Yemen — can use the longer-range drones in operations covering a range of nearly 1,000 kilometers. Previous attempts at launching longer-range missions with the UAV-X had not been as successful.
What is not clear is how many of the longer-range UAVs the Houthis have at their disposal. The UAV-X does not appear to be a variant of an Iranian-produced drone, and remnants of the vehicles recovered from previous failed missions reveal critical components of German and Chinese manufacture, suggesting that the Houthis may have a limited number that cannot be replenished as easily. Nevertheless, the attack showcases the potential effectiveness of long-range Houthi actions against soft targets like energy pipelines.
Connecting the Dots
Although Iran has always denied a connection, it is well known that Yemen's Houthi rebels receive materiel and financial and political support from the Islamic republic. Houthi actions against Saudi Arabia are driven by their own goals of countering Saudi and U.S. actions in Yemen, where the group has long sought to establish a stronger political base. They cannot, then, be considered an Iranian proxy force in the same sense as Lebanon's Hezbollah, which takes more direction from Tehran. But the Houthis share an ideological tie with the Islamic republic, and for its part, Iran sees supporting the Houthi movement as a cost-effective way to needle its Gulf Arab adversaries — namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that are embroiled in the anti-Houthi fight.
This long-standing but nebulous Iran-Houthi connection certainly elevates the possibility that Iran backed the pipeline attack. But even if Iran is not responsible, either directly or indirectly, for that particular assault, the incident nevertheless heightens the risk that it could draw a response from the United States — which has consistently equated an attack by forces that Iran supports as an attack by Iran itself.
With so many uncertainties, unconfirmed information and questions swirling about the connection between the oil tanker incidents and pipeline attack, four broad possible scenarios seem most likely:
- IRGC Directed. Both attacks are part of a concerted move by the IRGC, which has its own command-and-control system outside the Iranian central government, against Gulf Arab assets. This could be motivated by an intent to send a message of deterrence, to signal resolve against intensifying U.S.-led pressure, or to demonstrate a willingness to inflict economic harm on the Gulf Cooperation Council states as well as on their military backer, the United States.
- An Independent Action. Iranian-supported groups acting independently conducted these attacks without the express direction of the Iranian government or the IRGC. The Iranian presidency and foreign ministry have consistently espoused moderation in dealings with the United States even as tensions have risen between Washington and Tehran.
- A False Flag. The incidents are false-flag operations conducted by U.S., Gulf Arab, or Israeli actors trying to create the conditions for moving militarily against Iran. While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to insist the U.S. sanctions-driven pressure campaign against the Iranian government is not intended to provoke a war, some elements in Washington take a more hawkish stance.
- A Coincidence. The incidents occurred coincidentally — or one was driven by Iran and the other was locally driven, and the timing was coincidental.
What to Look for Next
If these incidents represent the opening salvos in an aggressive campaign by the IRGC's Quds Force to target regional energy interests, several critical points of escalation exist. Here are some of the most vulnerable potential targets to monitor if such a campaign were to intensify.
- Basra and Kuwait: Iran has deep ties to several militia groups in Iraq, but if it wanted to start attacking more oil infrastructure, the number of potential targets in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and Kuwait would offer a logical starting point.
- Strait of Hormuz: Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping traffic, but to this point has not made any actual moves to disrupt transit.
- Bab el-Mandeb: The Houthis have targeted tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb in the past and could again try to launch an aggressive campaign in the chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
- Offshore Infrastructure: The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all possess crucial oil and natural gas infrastructure in the Persian Gulf that Iran could target.