Iran's strategy of covert aggression may have reached its limits

While Tehran might escape immediate fallout from Saudi Aramco attacks, the cost of escalation is rising

Visitors look at a missile display at a military museum in Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday, Sept. 17. 2019. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif refused to rule out military conflict in the Middle East after the U.S. sent more troops and weapons to Saudi Arabia in response to an attack on oil fields the U.S. has blamed on the Islamic Republic. Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg
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The raid on Saudi oil infrastructure for which Iran has been blamed is unlikely to be the last, as Tehran believes it can deter any serious response, but the international scene may no longer play out in Tehran’s favour.

Underpinning Iran’s dismissal of enormous US firepower and warnings that armed action against the country would turn into “captivity and defeat” is a political calculus showing signs of becoming more difficult to sustain.

Iran’s clerical rulers may have correctly read the potential scenarios since the attack on Saudi oil, with pronounced divisions in the West and within the Arab Middle East.

They appear to have calculated that President Donald Trump would refrain for domestic political reasons from contributing to the opening of another war front, and that Riyadh would seek to address the physical damage from the attacks and strengthen its defences rather than retaliate.

US aversion to war and a latent desire for a deal with Tehran means that Iranian territory could remain outside the theatre of operations, despite targeting the operational hub of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, on September 14.

The US presented its case against Iran at the UN General Assembly this week, as Moscow and Beijing publicly resisted putting any blame on Iran for a series of attacks on energy-linked targets in the Gulf since May, the latest of which was the Aramco attack that cut Saudi oil exports by half.

But diplomats attending the UN General Assembly in New York said Beijing is not happy with the sharp rise in oil prices the attacks had caused.

UN specialists are already on the ground in Saudi Arabia to investigate the attacks. If their findings endorse US and Saudi accusations, European countries could find it more difficult to continue accommodating Tehran.

By de facto endorsing the attacks on Saudi Arabia without admitting any responsibility, Tehran underscored the centrality of the kingdom to global energy security, the military effectiveness of covert action notwithstanding.

The Iranian missiles and drones used in the attacks, which some US officials suggested were fired from Iraq by Shiite militias backed by Tehran, or from Iran proper, underscored simultaneously the threat to Israel.

Iranian officials have repeatedly blamed the current escalation on the US for pulling out of the 2015 nuclear accord.

The attacks appeared calculated to avoid loss of life and have been conducted in a way that leaves room, however narrow, for deniability by Tehran.

The Houthis rebels in Yemen said they had launched the latest attacks, a claim the US and Saudi Arabia dismissed as unrealistic given their limited capabilities and the trajectory of the weapons used.

Fadi Ahmar, assistant professor at Lebanon’s Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, said Iran will continue to threaten the world energy supplies as long as intensified US sanctions damage Iranian oil exports.

"There will be more hits, but with a message from Tehran to the international community not to acquiesce to the US sanctions," Mr Ahmar told The National from Beirut.

Iran has been loath to commit its forces directly to armed conflict, relying instead on Shiite militias in the region.

Ideological obedience to Tehran has helped these militias take hits without much jeopardy to their ties with Iran. But a string of recent attacks on Iranian militia proxies from the air has killed dozens and continued last week.

The latest strike, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, killed five Iraqi militiamen. The militia, known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, said Israel was behind the attack, but the US controls the skies where the attacks occurred.

Michael Eisenstadt, a military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, recommended that the US starts using the same “grey zone” operations Iran had employed in the region to counter Tehran.

“Forty years of experience has taught Tehran that it can conduct grey zone activities (including lethal operations) against American interests without risking a US military response,” Mr Eisenstadt wrote in a research note last week.

“Plausible deniability works both ways. The United States should respond in-kind to Iranian actions, using nonlethal ripostes to impose material costs.”

But Mr Ahmar of the Kaslik University said such tactics might be too late, because Iran has built so much regional capability without much hindrance for decades.

Mr Ahmar pointed to strikes suspected to have been carried out by Israel against Iran’s militia proxies in Syria, and lately in Iraq, which aimed to prevent the militias from acquiring advanced capabilities.

“The question is whether the strikes are achieving anything. Did they finish or diminish Iranian influence? If one arms depot is destroyed they have hundreds more. If one Iranian proxy militia is targeted Tehran has many more,” Mr Ahmar said.

As the US and its allies try to find a more assertive strategy, the challenge for Tehran and Washington will be to prevent violence from reaching unacceptable levels, such as loss of lives in Saudi Arabia or direct retaliation on Iranian soil rather than the killing of mere proxies.