Streetwise Professor

September 15, 2019

The Attack on Abqaiq: Iran Burns Its Boats

Filed under: Energy,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:07 pm

There is an apocryphal story about Moshe Dayan, in which when asked what was the secret of his success, he answered “fighting Arabs.” True or not, there is a certain veracity to the judgment. It’s not for no reason that there are articles with titles like “Why Arabs Lose Wars” and books with titles like “Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.” Yes, there have been exceptions, like the Jordanian Legion, but for the most part when Arab armies fight non-Arabs, the former get by far the worst of it.

The Saudi armed forces are arguably the worst of the lot, despite the billions in advanced arms that have been lavished on them over the years. It is a force designed primarily for regime protection, or more accurately, designed so that it does not pose a threat to the regime. Fighting the KSA’s external enemies is a secondary–or tertiary–consideration. In their minds, that’s what they pay the US for.

The appalling performance of the Saudi army in wars in Yemen, whether it be decades ago or today, provides ample testimony to this rather harsh judgment.

With this sorry history in mind, I consider it highly likely that Saudi military ineptitude contributed to, and was arguably the primary cause of, the devastating attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant. This has resulted in the disabling, for an indeterminate period, of 50 percent of Saudi oil production.

Especially in light of past Houthi (and Shiite Iraqi militia) attacks on Saudi facilities, this was an obvious target. For it to be hit so effectively, with not even the Saudis claiming to have downed any of the attacking aircraft (drones? rockets? missiles?) is a military failure of the first order.

So what now? The US has come out and directly blamed Iran. Whether Iran used one of its myriad cutouts, or pushed the button itself, is immaterial. It is almost certain that it is responsible.

So how to respond?

Even by Trump’s standards, his initial tweet in response was cringeworthy:

It’s one thing to await information from the KSA, and to coordinate with them. It’s quite another to delegate–as Trump appears to do–the decision on the American response to the militarily inept oil ticks that rule Saudi Arabia who are not our friends.

Trump has shown forebearance with Iran before. But shooting down a drone (albeit an expensive one) and attacking what is arguably the singlemost important oil installation in the world are on totally different levels. And Trump no doubt is thinking “if this is what forebearance gets me, screw it.”

Ironically, moreover, this occurred after Trump unceremoniously defenestrated the most conspicuous Iran hawk in his administration, and made noises about negotiating with Iran, and backing the French credit line initiative.

Want to bet that John Bolton is laughing his ass off now?

And what say you, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel?

Iran’s escalation at a time of American efforts to defuse tensions is akin to burning its boats. It makes clear that negotiation is off the table. It is either capitulation by the US (and Europe, as if it counts) or conflict. And how the US responds to this extremely provocative act is not something that should be left to the House of Saud.

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  1. I’ve had enough of ‘boots on the ground’ over there. However, those idjits are burning MY OIL, and raising MY GAS price. This cannot be allowed to go unpunished. At the risk of alienating the rest of the planet, maybe Iran, Iraq, Yemen is a good place for us to do some nuclear testing of our own. China? Are you watching? Russia? Pay attention now. No more doormat. Wake up SA too, those fat, dumb rich sheiks. Do – not – mess – with – OUR – oil – supply. Capeche? But – Trump. What a douche move to start out kowtowing to the SA govt. The people of SA have no love lost for the royals over there. I don’t really care if they like us or not, the oil has to keep flowing, or they don’t get to buy any new toys.

    Another idea is back to go ole colonialism. Install puppet govts where needed, and have a US ‘governor general’ to see that the head guy in the turban doesn’t get too greedy. Keep our eyes on the prize, and keep that cheap oil flowing.

    Comment by doc — September 15, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

  2. Professor, aren’t you concerned about the cascading effects of war in the region which would draw in both Pakistan and India? i.e two known nuclear powers, including Israel.

    Would it not just be better to seat in a room with China and Russia. Surely between the three of them, Iran could be handled?

    Comment by N.N — September 16, 2019 @ 1:00 am

  3. Who are the main customers for Saudi oil? Japan, China? Will they be the countries most immediately inconvenienced? If so, shouldn’t they be the ones bombing Iran?

    From the pov of the USA surely this stunt will just push up the value of its oil exports?

    Come to think of it, from the pov of the Russian Federation surely this stunt will just push up the value of its oil exports?

    SO: it’s obviously an American/Russian false flag attack, innit? Putin, impeachment, literally Hitler, etc, etc.

    Comment by dearieme — September 16, 2019 @ 3:48 am

  4. On reflection, the sensible US reaction would surely be to invade Venezuela and grab control of its oilfields. Then the Middle East can go to hell on a handcart.

    Comment by dearieme — September 16, 2019 @ 3:49 am

  5. Permian Drilling Economics massively improved (and they were already good)… Mission Accomplished!

    Comment by JavelinaTex — September 16, 2019 @ 7:55 am

  6. Oh, please!

    Comment by Thomas Jefferson — September 16, 2019 @ 10:36 am

  7. ‘It is either capitulation by the US (and Europe, as if it counts) or conflict’

    Agreed, but … how do you win against Iran? They’re tremendously confident, they feel they have reason to be.

    This won’t be easy.

    Huge development. I don’t think most of the world beyond this blog realise the significance of what is happening.

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 16, 2019 @ 10:38 am

  8. @N.N. Yes, I m concerned. I am not advocating a robust US military response.

    In some respects, Iran’s actions could be viewed as begging for such a response. Which makes me wonder why, and which consequently leads me to conclude to be even more cautious before we have a better grasp on the answer to that question.

    One possibility is that Iran is getting desperate due to its economic strangulation and is either attempting to scare the US into caving, or thinks that war is its only way out. Given this possibility, I say ramp up the economic pressure and take it from there.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 16, 2019 @ 12:52 pm

  9. @dearieme–It’s a world market. The countries that are net short–China and Japan in particular–will pay the biggest price. Countries that are net flat–and the US is roughly in that category–will not be hurt on net. But as @doc points out, as consumers we are short, and we’ll be hurt. The beneficiaries (as @JavelinaTex points out) are US producers (and their employees). This makes me dubious that the US would want to provoke something. The redistributive effects within the US are not a political winner, IMO.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 16, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

  10. Prof I beg to disagree, Saudi Arabia is our friend now, there was regime change, I also think they have weapons that the world has not seen, Iran’s days are numbered and not one drop of American blood will be spilled.

    You heard it here first.

    Comment by Tom — September 16, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

  11. I imagine that small drones wouldn’t have much success against a big aircraft carrier but their escort ships are often pretty flimsy, aren’t they, being effectively unarmored?

    What size of fleet of mixed large and small drones would you need to sink a carrier task force?

    I suppose one advantage in attack by drone is that it’s pretty hard for your enemy to be sure who’s attacking him.

    Comment by dearieme — September 16, 2019 @ 2:55 pm

  12. Kerry was over there, advising the mullahs on the strategy to deal with the U.S. President. It seems reasonable to assume that this attack might have been his advice. Someone should ask about that out loud.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — September 16, 2019 @ 6:36 pm

  13. Folks, stop thinking 2 years ahead. The US needs to pump the ME dry first. Keep our commodity in the ground. Drain them first, even if it takes 100 years. Once they go dry, thats all, so long and back to the 14th century for the region.

    Focus on what’s important here. MY LOW COST OIL! sorry for shouting, but — yeah.

    Comment by doc — September 16, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

  14. “Iran’s escalation at a time of American efforts to defuse tensions” begs the question: is there any actual evidence it was Iran? I can think of at least one other major terrorist regime poised to profit handsomely and without any downside that Iran is likely to experience.

    Comment by Ivan — September 17, 2019 @ 9:55 am

  15. This conflict will probably be played out in tweaks and teases. Therefore the response should be the same.

    If the Saudis would be able to think outside the box, they should probably conduct a raid in Shi’a Qatar, just to tweak Iran, and then deny everything. Bombing civilian targets in Houthi-controlled Yemen would also fit the bill, followed by a claim that it was probably done by someone else.

    However, until a US warship is hit, the US should do nothing at all. Stoking the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a should always be the goal, as it has the salutary effect — as Ebenezer Scrooge said — of reducing the surplus population.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — September 17, 2019 @ 1:28 pm

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