The attacks on Saudi oil: Iran, Iranian proxies, and state terrorism

International recognition of Iranian technological, financial and military support for these organizations has been well established through repeated UN investigations and reports.

A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Khurais, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S Government September 15, 2019 (photo credit: U.S. GOVERNMENT/REUTERS)
A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Khurais, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S Government September 15, 2019
(photo credit: U.S. GOVERNMENT/REUTERS)
Global oil prices have returned to normal following the recent drone strikes in Saudi Arabia which shocked the market and caused the price of Brent Crude, the global benchmark, to rise rapidly. However, fear and uncertainty within the market remains prevalent and unshakable, as do regional and global fears that these attacks could signal a clear and undeniable escalation in what is increasingly becoming a hot conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
These attacks highlight the inherent vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia’s security procedures and capabilities, as well as in the ability of Saudi Arabia’s enemies to potentially economically and strategically cripple the oil-producing behemoth, the world’s largest oil-producing nation, and the front line of the US-led coalition against Iranian aggression within the region.
With the lack of a specific and credible perpetrator, accusations and blame are being levelled against a variety of groups ranging from Iranian backed Shia militia groups in Iraq, to Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, to Iran itself. However, what becomes clear through an examination of the limited information available to the public, is that Iran has played a key and undeniable role in the facilitation of these attacks, either directly through Iranian agents, or indirectly through targeting support, military training, financial aid, or the supply of weapon systems. These facts raise the controversial question, do Iran’s actions in Saudi Arabia constitute state terrorism, or at the very least state-sponsored terrorism.
International recognition of Iranian technological, financial and military support for these organizations has been well established through repeated UN investigations and reports, which conclusively point to direct Iranian sponsorship, as well as to Iranian circumvention of international arms sanctions, regulations, and conventions. Without considerable support from Iran, the Houthi rebels and the Shia militia groups most likely responsible for these attacks would be otherwise incapable of carrying them out given their inherent lack of sophistication, technological capability, and access to modern weapons systems.
The argument that Iran is a supporter and funder of terrorism is nothing new, both the United States and Israel have long condemned Iranian actions and their support for radical Shia organizations as tantamount to the sponsorship of terrorism, but the accusations made by the United States in the case of the Saudi drone strikes go far beyond mere sponsorship, and into the realm of direct state terrorism. In this regard, the United States has undertaken both unilateral and multilateral measures that escalate and provide considerable legitimacy to international claims that Iran is a global and regional supporter of terrorism.
THESE MEASURES include the designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, as well as the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a politically powerful faction and stakeholder within Iranian politics and foreign policy, as a foreign terrorist organization.
These official designations are politically and diplomatically powerful; they undermine the international legitimacy of Iran and Iranian foreign policy, and work to weaken Iranian influence within the region. Despite the inherent political purpose behind these definitions and designations, academics within the field of conflict and terrorism studies have yet to reach a consensus on whether the actions of a state can constitute terrorism, given the traditional state-centric conception of international relations. However, outside the realm of scholarly debate on political theory, such definitions and designations are practical, pragmatic and essential in allowing the international community to regulate and control the legitimate and illegitimate use of force by states.
Therefore the fundamental question remains: Do Iran’s actions in Saudi Arabia constitute state or state-sponsored terrorism, and if so, what are the potential ramifications of such a label? The definition of state terrorism is a difficult one to conclusively meet, given the inherently clandestine nature of the organizations and individuals involved. As such, it will likely be impossible to conclusively point to Iran as having direct involvement in the Saudi oil attacks.
However, with regard to state-sponsored terrorism, under the most broadly accepted definition, the answer is indisputably yes. The attacks tick all the definitional boxes: They were against non-military targets, occurred outside of a legitimate conflict, had a definite element of indirect state involvement, had a distinct political motivation designed to coerce Saudi Arabia, and they had the intention of spreading fear and insecurity amongst Saudi Arabian leadership.
The degree to which Iran knew of, facilitated or controlled the attacks will likely remain unknown to the general public. Was Iranian involvement passive, i.e., did Iran know of the impending attacks before they occurred and chose not to warn Saudi Arabia out of indifference or tacit support for the actions? Or was Iranian involvement active as claimed by the United States, i.e., was Iran involved in controlling or coordinating the attacks?
The distinction between the two may seem like an argument in semantics, given that both pathways would make Iran equally culpable for the acts. But the distinction between the two has the power to shape the rhetoric, actions and retaliatory measures undertaken either unilaterally or multilaterally by the United States and Saudi Arabia, as we have already begun to see in this latest example of escalatory action and Iranian brinkmanship.

The writer is completing a master’s degree in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.



Tags Terrorism