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Who Let the Drones Out? Or How Cheap Drones May Precipitate War with Iran

During the past two weeks, the intractable civil war in Yemen has reignited tensions between the decades-old rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as drawing the United States closer. The cause for this recent flareup in tensions is one that hasn’t been seen since the First Gulf War of 1991: military attacks on oil fields in the Arabian Peninsula. As a result, Washington is pondering military intervention in support of the Saudis, though there may be a distinct divide between the perpetrators of this attack and whom the United States has decided to assign the blame.

On September 14th, two oil installations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia northeast of the capital were attacked via drone strikes and set ablaze. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attacks, with the intent of warding off Saudi involvement in the Yemeni civil war.

This was no small task on behalf of the Houthi rebels either; one of the targets, located in Abqaiq, is the world’s largest oil processing facility and a vital asset of the Saudi oil industry. The vulnerability of oil facilities in Saudi Arabia has been a concern for the kingdom for years, although the extent of the potential damage that could be inflicted was always uncertain. For now, the damage to global oil markets resulting from this attack has mostly been restricted to sharp fluctuations in crude oil prices, while the Saudis have been struggling to repair the facilities, which have considerably dampened their oil production rates.

The oil installations that were attacked on 14. September, located just northeast of the Saudi capital. / Wikimedia Commons

Many of the drones that are utilized by rebel factions like the Houthis and ISIS have used are predominantly simpler, civilian models. Military analysts familiar with the war in Yemen question whether the Houthis were really responsible for the attack; the Saudi oil fields are simply too far away for non-military grade drones to reach without a complex support and transportation system.

In a disappointing display of American military prowess, the Patriot missile defense system utilized by the Saudis to defend against incursions from the southern part of the country failed to deter the drones from reaching their targets.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to verify the extent of the capabilities that the Houthis possess in their drone arsenal. One report from the UN postulates that the evolution of drone technology in recent years has grown considerably, with the advanced models being able to reach deep into Saudi airspace.

Following a retaliatory airstrike against the Houthi-held city of Hodeidah, the Houthis agreed to cease their drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, to the satisfaction of the international community. This is the first step towards a new ceasefire agreement in Yemen, though the prospects of it succeeding are far from certain.
Washington, however, has chosen to identify a different culprit behind the attacks: Iran. The Trump administration has demonstrated evidence in the form of satellite photographs that it claims proves Iranian culpability for the drone strikes. Part of the reasoning is that the strikes required drone technology and weapons that are beyond the means of the Houthis; this type of material and training may have originated from Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has considered the incident as “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has gone as far as stating that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” to respond to the attack, hinting at a possibility of a military response from the United States shortly after the attacks.

Iran has, unsurprisingly, denied any involvement with the attacks in mid-September to the surprise of none in the international community. Regardless, Iran has not shied away from endorsing the attacks against their old nemesis Saudi Arabia. Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani noted that “Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defence…the attacks were a reciprocal response to aggression against Yemen for years.”  As one of the primary sponsors of the Houthi rebels, it is no surprise that Iran sees this exploitation of Saudi weakness favorably. 

While many are quick to note that this would invariably lead to harsher repercussions towards Iran at the hands of the United States, Iran does not appear to feel vulnerable at the moment; in fact, members of both the political and military institutions within Iran see this renewed aggression a new strategy against the Americans. 

This theory may hold some merit, as this is not the first time Iran has begun to adopt more overt actions of defiance against the U.S. since the disastrous efforts by the Trump administration to withdraw from the nuclear treaty signed between the two countries during the Obama administration nearly four years ago.

Despite the fiery rhetoric of the days following the attacks, it seems that the U.S. president has taken a more restrained approach than expected. Instead of a large retaliatory strike against Iran as was believed, the U.S. has thus far deployed a small contingent consisting of one additional Patriot missile battery and around 200 troops to the kingdom.

Apparently, the president has decided to focus on collaborative defense strategy with Saudi Arabia, while simultaneously boasting that the restraint demonstrated could just as easily be replaced with airstrikes in yet another display of inconsistency in policy.

One of the many Patriot missile batteries meant to protect Saudi Arabia from drone and missile attacks. / Wikimedia Commons

The unpredictability of Donald Trump’s actions and rhetoric makes it difficult to ascertain which course the U.S. will take over the next few months. This is in large part due to the fact that he has settled on a do-it-yourself, or DIY, approach to foreign policy like everything else. Days before the attacks, he dismissed his national security advisor, John Bolton, a hawkish conservative that favored more punitive measures against states like Iran. 

This will serve to not only make the United States appear a more unreliable ally than ever, but it may also lead to an escalation of conflict between the Iranians and the Saudis culminating in a “hot” war between the two. President Trump has a variety of possible approaches to resolving this latest issue; the question is which aspect of his character will prevail in his decision-making down the road? Will it be the trade-obsessed businessman, the improvising opportunist, or the unforgiving revanchist?

Alex Guzman

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