Ever since the Saddam Hussein regime fell in Iraq in 2003, Iran been slowly expanding its sphere of influence, which now encompasses much of what it is called Middle-East. In Lebanon, the Iranians have the proxy group Hezbollah, which functions as a party/parallel administrative entity/military group. In Syria, the Assad regime relies heavily on Iranian support, a help which has allowed the government to remain in power despite the civil war, and even allow them to recover lost ground. In Iraq, the Americans ousted Saddam, only for the shias (a sect of islam), which had been persecuted by him, to take power and begin their own authoritarian like rule. Finally, we have Yemen in which the Iranians are covertly funding and supplying weapons the Houthis rebels.
All these proxy groups rely heavily on Iran, which is seen as the Defensor of all the shias and uses that image as well as its resources to support such groups. This, in turn, gives Iran a tremendous amount of influence in the countries in which these proxies operate.
However, most of the sunni (the most popular sect of islam) countries in the region don’t see this growing Iranian influence with good eyes, as it jeopardizes their own influence and security (some of these countries have large shia minorities that would like to oust their sunni overlords).
As such, a coalition has been created to counter this growing Iranian influence, which is being spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. All this clash of interests and hostilities have effectively turned the Middle East for the ground of a Saudi-Iranian style cold war, in which the two sides never use direct confrontation, using instead proxy groups.
One big example of this is Yemen (where this article will be focused). In Yemen, the Saudis have been supporting the Yemeni government, and the Iranians, the shia affiliated Houthis rebels, which has resulted in a brutal civil war which has largely been overshadowed in the media. The civil war started in 2015. Divisions in the country had existed for decades, if not hundreds of years (Yemen, due to its mountainous configuration, has never been a very unified country, lacking the social cohesion and sense of national identity; people identify themselves more with the tribe or community rather than the country).
In very brief overview, the Houthis took over Sana’a, the capital, and large parts of the country, meaning the Yemeni government only controls the southern coastlines making Aden its new capital. Not even Saudi direct intervention with airstrikes, tanks and combat unites has pushed back the Houthis.
However, in the mist of this growing Iranian power, the greatest adversary to Iran is actually the US, which does not want a hegemonic power in the Middle East that could challenge its influence. Because of this, the Americans have mounted a coalition of countries that, even though they don’t see eye to eye, have the same objective: push back against Iran (it’s important to be noted that these countries don’t have any public affiliation nor official agreement).
In Syria and Southern Lebanon, the Israelis are countering Hezbollah and striking Iranian military assets, and in Yemen, the Saudis and the UAE are directly involved. Thus, the Iranian sphere of influence is not yet secure and has been attacked on all sides, which means Iran may seek alternative ways to beat back the coalition, and has identified the weakest link in it: Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is experiencing internal divisions following the reforms and actions of crown prince Salman. Moreover, the country has come rely almost exclusively on oil revenues to maintain the different factions content, and needs the expected funds of the Saudi Aramco (believed by many to be the most valuable not public company) projected IPO to finance the economic reforms in the kingdom, which will completely restructure the society, and are absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the Saudis in a post-oil economy.
With this in mind, in the 19th of September a drone strike or missile strike (no one really is sure of the used instruments) occurred against two separate crude oil refineries belonging to Saudi Aramco. The nature of the attacks means that no one can tell where the projectiles came from (giving large plausible deniability to the author). In the aftermath of the attacks, the Houthis rebels took credit for them, however, the strikes where carefully planned with exact precision and advanced weapons, capabilities not demonstrated in the past from the Houthis, which are not known to even possess projectiles capable of breaching Saudi air defences.
A more plausible author is Iran, which possesses all the required tools to conduct such an attack, and the obscure nature of these provide the necessary deniability.
The attacks have made the Saudis delay the IPO, in order to recover the damaged assets, as well as restore the investor confidence. Nonetheless, some loss of the last is inevitable, meaning the value of the IPO will decrease, as it has been exposed to just how vulnerable the assets are. With these attacks, the Iranians have damaged Saudi Arabia and exposed the biggest weakness in the American led coalition, and cornered the Trump administration. Trump cannot seat heddle, risking emboldening Iran and its proxys to carry out more of such attacks. However, Trump cannot risk a direct military confrontation in the mist of the election cycle either. A confrontation that could lead to a costly war where many lives would be taken, and risk the world’s oil supply, which could trigger the next recession.
So, the Americans are cornered, and are expected to resort to more economic sanctions and cyber-attacks, however, these will likely not have the necessary deterring effect. This all means that we are likely to see more of such attacks in the future, which will surely weaken Saudi Arabia and thereby allowing Iran to strengthen their sphere of influence.
All in all, these attacks mark a new strategy of countering its foes by Iran, and mean a new stage for the Saudi-Iran cold war where the Saudis continue to come short to their rival, which now smells blood and will likely take advantage of Saudis’ weaknesses, thereby ensuring the survival of its sphere of influence allowing Iran to be closer to their hegemonic desire.