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Smoke Signals in the Next Middle East War

Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields was a warning to Israel in an escalating regional war

Seth Frantzman
October 08, 2019
Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
A damaged installation in Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing plant is pictured on Sept. 20, 2019Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
A damaged installation in Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing plant is pictured on Sept. 20, 2019Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

A bit over two weeks before the cruise missiles and drones detonated in Saudi Arabia’s strategic oil fields, igniting massive explosions that would take out more than half of the country’s daily oil exports, a group of Hezbollah activists emerged on Aug. 22 from a hill overlooking the Golan Heights. They carried with them drones, which malfunctioned when they tried to use them, apparently as a result of Israeli military actions. They were being watched by Israeli surveillance, which caught them trudging through a field. Two nights later the men, whom Israeli officials labeled a “killer drone” team, were killed in an airstrike. Israel warned at the time that Iran’s drones and precision guided missiles were a significant threat.

On Sept. 14, the attack on Saudi Arabia proved how significant the threat was when 18 drones and seven cruise missiles struck the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities setting fire to facilities responsible for more than 5% of the global daily crude oil production. The U.S. has blamed Iran for the attacks while Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken responsibility. Ultimately, the exact details of the attack, including how it was planned and who ultimately carried it out, remains a matter of some dispute. But what has become very clear is that the attack on the Saudis was also meant as a warning to Israel. Beyond the oil fields, the cruise missiles and drones were targeting a larger audience for whom they were meant to signal the weakness and vulnerability of Iran’s enemies in the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli axis.

The complex attack on Sept. 14 was followed by a crescendo of statements threatening Israel and the U.S. Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, chairman of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, said that the attack on Saudi Arabia “changed the equation” in the region. “The U.S. axis in the region is retreating.” For Iran and its allies, Israel is a key player in the enemy “axis” that is locked in conflict with what Tehran defines as its own “axis of resistance.”

In the aftermath of the Abqaiq attack, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has rapidly increased its verbal threats against Israel. Like Hezbollah, the IRGC’s message is that the attack has weakened the U.S. commitment to an ongoing role in the Middle East thus eroding a critical source of support for Israel. IRGC head Hossein Salami said on Sept. 30 that “the sinister regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map…this is no longer an aspiration or a dream anymore, but an achievable goal.”

The linkage between Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia and the larger context of Iran’s threats to Israel and strategy for the greater Middle East can be seen not only in the increasingly heated rhetoric from Iranian leadership or from Hezbollah’s threats, but also in accounts linking the attacks to developments in Iraq. A report at Middle East Eye asserted on Sept. 15 that the attacks on Saudi Arabia “were in retaliation for Israeli drone strikes on Hashd al-Shaabi bases and convoys in August [in Iraq], which were coordinated and funded by Saudis.” The report, based on a senior Iraqi intelligence official, may be erroneous but was clearly an attempt to situate the Abqaiq attack in the context of the Iran-Israel spectrum of simmering conflict. The impression was reinforced when, on Sept. 30, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi blamed Israel for a series of attacks in Iraq.

Israel has admitted more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, including one just five days before the Abqaiq attack, where an airstrike struck warehouses in the Syrian city of Albukamal on the Iraqi border that were allegedly part of an Iranian base. But the recent attacks in Iraq—where starting in July there have been a series of mysterious airstrikes on munitions warehouses used by Iranian-backed Shiite militias—have never been officially acknowledged by Jerusalem.

Israel’s immediate security concern today in the wake of the Abqaiq attack is the same as it was before the attack: Hezbollah. Specifically, the threat of high-grade munitions and drone technology of the kind targeted by Israeli strikes in August. On Sept. 3, a spokesman from Israel’s IDF revealed an Iran-backed precision missile factory in northern Lebanon: “The facility holds a number of machines designed to manufacture the motors and warheads of missiles with an accuracy of less than 10 meters. In order to manufacture the missiles, Iran supplies special machines.” A few weeks later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened both Israel and Saudi Arabia in a Sept. 20 speech, where he boasted of downing Israeli drones and claimed Saudi Arabia would be destroyed in any future conflict.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an IDF officer told Tablet last week that Israel is absorbing the recent events in the Middle East and examining the threat of killer drones and precision guided munitions. “Of more significant strategic threat is the Quds Force and Hezbollah’s efforts to manufacture precision guided munitions in Lebanon,” the officer said. Cruise missiles are seen as a state-of-the-art weapon that would significantly transform and upgrade Hezbollah’s current arsenal and capabilities—accordingly they represent a clear line that Israel will not allow the group to cross.

In addition to offensive operations to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring the advanced weapons systems, Israel has a multilayered air defense including the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems as well as the U.S.-made Patriot. Israel has already foiled five attacks by Iran and its proxies since February 2018, including drones and rockets. Still, a recent article in Haaretz argues that Israel must upgrade its missile defense in the wake of the Abqaiq attack: “The precision and effectiveness of Iran’s strike on Saudi oil fields put Israel’s strategic infrastructure in danger.”

While drones are seen as a manageable threat by Israeli defense officials, low altitude cruise missiles, which can evade some older missile intercept technology, are seen as a greater challenge. Israeli radar systems, such as IAI’s Multi-Mission Radar, can scan 360 degrees and sort out clutter near the ground using advanced algorithms that distinguish between targets and nonthreatening features of the landscape. Cruise missiles, while Iran used them effectively to bypass Saudi defenses, are not especially different than low flying small planes, or stealth technology, in their ability to try to evade radar detection. Detecting them is more difficult because they can hide by using terrain features, getting closer to a target. Iran claims its cruise missiles can also fly up to 560 miles an hour, but that may be an exaggeration.

On Oct. 1, Iran released an interview with Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani discussing the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in which he pointed out that, at the time, the U.S. presence in Iraq was an obstacle for Tehran. Today things have changed. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq has threatened the U.S. as recently as Sept. 26, while much of the Iraqi security forces are now controlled by Iranian-backed militias and military leaders with ties to Tehran. Meanwhile, protests and riots have erupted in recent weeks expanding rapidly across the heavily Shiite regions of Baghdad and central Iraq. The protesters, some chanting anti-Iranian slogans, have been concentrated in those areas where Iran’s influence has been most pronounced and heavy-handed, and have cast new light on Iran’s attempt to dominate Iraqi politics.

Taken all together, the Israeli strikes in Lebanon last month and in Syria and possibly Iraq as well, the attack in Saudi Arabia, and the statements from Iranian and Hezbollah officials form part of a larger pattern in which Israel and Iran are locked in an escalating conflict playing out across the region. In the long term, Iran’s land bridge strategy connecting Tehran to the Mediterranean coast through a chain of contiguous client states in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, points directly at Israel.

Israeli officials have repeatedly warned about this Iranian encirclement and “entrenchment,” but the warnings have not been enough to stop the advance. The Abqaiq attack, like the Israeli airstrikes that preceded it, was both another salvo in this war and a challenge to the U.S. and the Gulf Arab states, testing their reactions as Iran ramps up its next phase in the war against Israel.


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Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist, oped editor of The Jerusalem Post and contributor to Defense News. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming from Gefen Publishing). Follow him at @sfrantzman. .