A major attack on Saudi oil production is stoking tensions in the Middle East. Heritage Foundation expert Peter Brookes discusses what happened, and what it means for the region and the United States. Read the lightly edited interview, pasted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Daniel Davis: We are joined now in the studio by Peter Brookes. He is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.
Peter, thanks for joining us.
Peter Brookes: Good to be with you.
Davis: So, initial reports out of Saudi Arabia were that a drone attacked the oil facilities over there, but more recently we’ve heard that it was actually a missile strike combined with drones.
Most recently we’ve heard that these actually came directly from Iran. I want to get to that in a minute, but first, what do we know for sure about what happened?
Brookes: That a huge Saudi Arabian oil facility was attacked. Right now, that’s what we know.
This is the world’s largest oil facility. It decreased their production by 25%, affecting probably 5% of global oil production.
That’s what we really know. Now we’re hearing a lot of things coming out, as you mentioned. I wouldn’t say they’re speculation, but we don’t know the sourcing of it.
Until the U.S. government comes out and says to us, “This was an attack using drones. or missiles and drones, or missiles coming from someplace in the Middle East. and there are several candidates.
I think we have to be measured. There’s a possibility that this could have come out of Yemen and Houthi rebels, although I think the distances that we’re talking about from the Yemeni border to this facility at Abqaiq is pretty far for the capabilities that the Yemenis have.
We’ve also seen drone attacks out of southern Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. Then, of course, there is the possibility that this did come from an Iranian ship, Iranian oil tankers, Iranian oil rigs, or Iran itself.
So there’s a lot we need to know. My understanding is, once again, based on current news reports, is that not all of the drones or missiles found their target. Some of them fell short. They may be available for forensic investigation. You can find out what the parts are inside.
Even the ones that did explode, they will have some sort of remains that could allow some sort of investigative work, forensics on it, to see where they came from.
There’s a lot of possibilities. Now, that said, I feel comfortable believing that Iran was directly or indirectly involved. Once again, you’re talking about the Houthi rebels. They’re fighting the Saudis in a proxy war, and they are backed by Iran.
The Iranian militias in southern Iraq are backed by Iran. And of course, there’s Iran. The … Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is the most capable military arm of the Iranian armed forces.
Now, there’s … the Iranian armed forces like the navy, and then there’s the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] navy, for instance. There’s a lot of possibilities out here, and I think what we first need to do is essentially mitigate the situation.
Get the Saudis back online, deal with global energy security, make sure this can’t happen again. Perhaps the United States needs to work with the Saudis on their air defenses.
It says maybe as many as 20 drones or missiles got through Saudi defenses to hit this facility.We need to attribute what happened here. So that means all that information. Talk to the Saudis. Saudis aren’t saying a lot right now, actually. See what others saw.
There’s reports that the Kuwaitis saw missiles and drones flying through their airspace and that made people think it was Iraq—or not the Iraqis, but out of Iraq or Iran.
Then, of course, we need to consult. We need to talk to the Saudis, see what they know, see what others in the Gulf know.
The president is meeting this afternoon with the Middle East leader. We may know more that may happen during this podcast to see what they know.
Obviously, the intelligence services are working very hard to figure that out. We also need to consult with our major allies, that others that have an interest in what happens in the Middle East, the British and the French, and decide what we’re going to do, and then then respond.
And of course, since this was [an] attack on Saudi Arabia and not [an] attack on the United States, the Saudis have to be part of that. Certainly, part of that conversation.
The other thing I would point out, I think, is really important is that we’ve got U.S. forces across the Middle East.
I actually have a research paper coming out on Iranian drones this weekend. So, it’s timely. … I wasn’t expecting this sort of thing, but this drone war’s been going on for a little bit.
We have forces afloat and at bases in the Middle East, and if they can hit this part of Saudi Arabia, all of them are vulnerable as well.
Of course, we had that situation a few weeks ago, with the USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone that was seen to be threatening as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
Katrina Trinko: Before we get further into the global politics here, you mentioned energy security. How big a deal is it for the U.S. and the rest of the world that 5% of the oil market was taken out?
Are we going to see gas prices go up? Is this going to have an effect on day-to-day life?
Brookes: Well, we’ve already seen energy futures go up about 10%. I think they had peaked at about 20%. We’re not sure. Markets are interesting. They can change on a whim.
I would expect we’re going to see … . I’m not an energy expert, but I’ll say this here: I would expect we’re going to see a short-term increase in gas and energy prices. …
But they go up and down anyway. I mean, think about it. I mean, what did you pay two weeks ago, and what’d you pay this week? You know, this weekend.
So, they change, right? That has a lot to do with it. Now they’re saying, and once again not being the energy expert, that the Saudis may be able to increase production by 25% in the short term.
So, in other words, like within a week or so, they may be able to get enough of the production facilities up that it’s only a 25% degradation from where they were before, before the strike.
So, that would be a reduction. They also have strategic petroleum reserves around the world, interestingly enough, and in Saudi Arabia.
The president is also talking about releasing energy from our strategic stockpiles as well. The energy market, they’ve been through this before. Now, if you go back to the 1970s during some of the crisis in the Middle East, it changed things significantly.
I was actually surprised, once again, being national-security type, not an energy type, that they didn’t go up higher than they did. They’ve only gone up 10%.
Now if things get worse, or if they’re able to say it was Iran, and there’s concerns about a military conflict, then they may go up again.
Remember, there’s a lot of things that go into the way markets go, but I would expect in the short term, we’ve definitely seen 10%. I heard it was as much as 20%, and we’ll have to see what happens next.
Davis: So, getting at the geopolitics of this, why would Iran attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities?
Brookes: It’s a lot of reasons. One reason that I think that I mentioned [on the] Fox Business [Channel] today, which is the one that people probably aren’t thinking about, is that, remember, it’ll raise oil prices.
Iran, remember, is a major oil exporter, but under the maximum-pressure campaign, their exports have decreased significantly. They’re the lowest they have been in 30 years.
If Iran is able to drive oil prices up without them—once again, not being named as the perpetrator of this—that would benefit Iran.
In other words, for every barrel of oil, instead of being a dollar, it might be a $1.50, and that would put 50 cents more per barrel in the Iranian government coffers. That’s a possibility.
Remember, these two countries are rivals. They have been rivals for a long time, and one is a Sunni Arab country, and one is a Shia Persian country. So, that makes a big difference in the Middle East.
They’re also involved in a war in Yemen—you know, a proxy state. The Houthi rebels are a proxy of Iran. Iran is trying to spread its power and influence throughout the Middle East. There [are] reasons for doing this.
There’s also a major demonstration of what I would say, drone and missile and military mind, on the part of the Iranians. Twenty missiles or drones or whatever they were, ballistic or cruise missiles or armed drones or as we call them, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, UCAVs.
It was a significant demonstration of force, and it sends a signal around the world and to others in the Persian Gulf and the United States. For instance, our U.S. force is vulnerable. Our U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf are vulnerable. This was a powerful statement, at a minimum.
Of course, once again, we don’t know exactly who did this, but I feel comfortable believing that Iran was involved in some manner.
Trinko: As you mentioned, we’re recording this on Monday afternoon, so the president might say more after we’ve recorded it, which is convenient, but what should the U.S. response be?
Some are saying, “Are we going to end up in another war in the Middle East?” Do we give more military weapons to Saudi Arabia? What is the range of options, and what would you recommend?
Brookes: Well, once again, we don’t know everything yet, so it’s hard to say, but in a general way, I think we go back to the facts.
This was an attack on Saudi Arabia. [It wasn’t] an attack on the United States. Of course, we have to raise the level of alert of our forces in the Middle East. Although they knew about this threat, but I was really surprised that there were so many missiles and drones fired in this case that we have to make sure that we have the capabilities to defend our forces. …
We have capabilities to do this. You can knock drones down in any number of ways. You use air-to-air missiles from a fighter aircraft. You use 20-millimeter Gatling guns from fire aircraft. You can use surface-to-air missiles. You can use directed-energy weapons. You can use electronic warfare there. They’re working on microwave.
There’s all sorts of capabilities for doing this. But do we have enough of it? That’s a big question. I think this is something that Congress really needs to look at.
Iran is not the only drone power out there. We’re talking about China in the Pacific. The Russians are … . But Iran is one of the world’s pre-eminent drone powers.
This is something we need to be thinking about for the defense. Of course, we have to raise our alert level—be capable, maybe increase our intelligence. We were watching things around the world.
Maybe we need to shift some of our intelligence assets to make sure we have strategic warning against something the Iranians might do.
Like I said, once again, we have to figure out exactly what happened here before we fashion a response.
In the short term, I think we need to be measured and alert, and understand that we may need to assist our Saudi partners in increasing their defenses, and also you have to consult with them about what they really want to do and whether other important Gulf countries want to do about this.
Iran is a powerful country in that part of the world, and in some cases when you think about their capabilities with Hezbollah, another proxy, they are very capable, and they have global capabilities for acts of terrorism.
Davis: What’s the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia like these days? To put it crassly, why do we care what happens to Saudi Arabia? And is it just oil, or are there other things at work?
Brookes: Well, it’s strained because of the [Jamal] Khashoggi situation. Remember the journalist [who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018]. It’s been strained.
There are also people that are unhappy with the way they’ve prosecuted the war in Yemen. This has gone on for quite some time. Some people are not happy with their tactics there, but it has been a long-standing partner of the United States for stability in that part of the world.
It is the most powerful country, and a leader, in the Muslim world.
We’re also really worried about Iran for a lot of reasons. Iran is causing trouble in countries from Afghanistan through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. They’re trying to create a swath of power that increases the influence of Iran.
You have to remember what you’re thinking about, when you’re talking about Iran. I mean, this is a country that’s the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world today.
They were involved in a nuclear program that they weren’t truthful about. They have a ballistic-missile program that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, and they continue to test those.
They’re seizing tankers in the Gulf. They’re putting mines on tankers in the Gulf. They’re shooting down drones. They’re threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. There’s any number of issues. They’re involved in cyberwarfare.
I mean, you guys should do a program on that. They’re a serious actor in cyber directed at the United States. You could almost argue, reasonably, that Iran is the greatest threat to international security out there.
Saudi Arabia is a partner of ours in preventing Iran from ascending to dominance of that. They want to be the dominant power in the Middle East.
My view is that they want to be the dominant power in the Middle East and the most powerful country in the Muslim world. There’s things to be concerned about.
Of course, I didn’t even get into human rights, did I? Or governance. This is not a democracy. It’s a country that represses its people.
Read the paper any day that involves Iran and not see somebody, some foreigner who’s gone there to study or take video blogs or things like that, that hasn’t been arrested and thrown in jail.
There are some Americans that are still there. So, this is a very troublesome state, and I think we need to be very concerned about it. Saudi Arabia can be a partner of ours.
The other thing, if we have time, a lot of people overlook the importance of Yemen.
If you pull out a map—I’m “old school”—or you go online, and you look at Google Maps. This is a very strategically located country. It’s got the Red Sea. It’s got the Gulf there, the Arabian Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
A lot of American forces transit the Red Sea on their way to the Persian Gulf if they’re coming out of the Atlantic. After that, it becomes an Iranian satellite state. Whether or not just having some drones and some missiles, they have a lot of drones and missiles that threatened shipping, that threatened U.S. forces.
They can continue to threaten Saudi oil supplies. This is not the first refinery hit in Saudi Arabia by Iran-backed proxies. This has happened before, usually in the southern part of Saudi Arabia, because the drones don’t have the distance or range to reach that far north.
But they’ve been attacking airports. They’ve been attacking refineries. These are the Houthi rebels I’m speaking about here. So, this is something that we need to be concerned about in terms of our view of global international security.
Trinko: So, big picture here: Do you think there’s any chance this leads to Saudi Arabia declaring war on Iran? Even more big picture, do you foresee other countries in the Middle East and or elsewhere in the world getting involved?
Brookes: I’m not a lawyer on this, but as a national security type, I would say that if it turns out that Iran, not the Houthi rebels, not Iranian-backed militias, that if Iran made this attack on Saudi Arabia, I would see it as an act of war. Plain and simple.
But like I said, I’m not a lawyer, so let’s check with our lawyers to make sure I’ve got this right. I would say this is an act of war. It was an unprovoked attack on the land of Saudi Arabia.
I think Saudi Arabia has the right to respond or not to respond. That’s their choice. And there are risks in doing both.
Sometimes, there is a risk in doing nothing, and there’s a risk in doing something. So, they have to think about that, and they’ll want to be in consultation with the other states in the region.
They have to consider: Will this increase instability? Will this benefit Saudi interests? Can we do something that doesn’t escalate the situation?
And of course, the United States will want to be part of that conversation [because] we’ll probably be, because of the magnitude.
In fact, we have U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia again. They’re near Riyadh. Missile-defense forces, near the airport. We have forces there.
This is very, very complicated. Of course, many, many countries have interest in that part of the world. Chinese do. The Russians do. The French, the British.
… [S]ome of the tankers that were seized by the Iranians, some of them were owned by the Swedes, but under this flag, and things along that line. There’s a lot of people.
Because of our energy renaissance here, we’re not dependent on Middle East oil, but a lot of the world is. They are concerned about what happens in the Middle East.
If there’s a war, I think that certainly will affect oil prices, right, which will affect economics. Which will affect people’s well-being. But sometimes that’s what’s required if you’re worried that Iran might … who knows what Iran’s going to do next?
It was kind of quiet for a little bit in a relative sort of sense. No tankers mined. No drone shoot-downs. No tankers seized. Although I heard they seized another one today. But I heard this morning that they’re also going to release the British tanker they were holding onto. The Brits released the tanker, and then all of a sudden this sort of thing happened.
President [Donald] Trump and [Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani were potentially scheduled to meet at the U.N. in New York in the next week or two.
If Iran, who the maximum-pressure campaign has had a significant effect on its economy and on government ability to spend and fund its international adventurism, that may have been an opportunity for them to improve their situation.
Now, there’s another thing I need to point out. … This is important to point out. We have to know whether this was national policy or this was a rogue commander that undertook this attack.
Many times in history, we’ve seen where somebody locally may have done something that would not have been approved of in the capital.
Now, this is a pretty big strike, so [it’s] hard to believe that’s not the case, but could a rogue [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] commander have done this, a hard-liner?
So, we need to know, in fact, when they shot down the American drone, the president made a reference to the fact that a local commander had made a mistake, if you recall that.
That’s like, I’m saying, information gathering is the most important thing. If we need to respond, we should respond when we have very high degree of confidence of what transpired.
Davis: All right, well Peter Brookes, I really appreciate you coming in today.
Brookes: Thanks for having me.