Q&A

Former 5th Fleet Commander: Iran Attacks on Saudi Oil a ‘Significant Escalation’

Retired Vice Adm. John Miller says the United States and Saudi Arabia should ratchet up the war in Yemen to hit back at Iran.

Vice Adm. John Miller, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, answers questions from sailors in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on Jan. 26, 2015.
Vice Adm. John Miller, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, answers questions from sailors in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on Jan. 26, 2015. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nick Brown/Released

Consensus is building in Washington that a devastating attack on Saudi oil infrastructure over the weekend came via Iran, whether through its Houthi rebel proxies in Yemen or directly from launch sites in Iran. And early Monday, reports emerged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized another vessel in the Strait of Hormuz.

U.S. President Donald Trump raised the possibility of direct U.S. military action against Iran in a Sunday tweet, writing that the United States is “locked and loaded” to respond. But U.S. officials are now waiting on Saudi Arabia for guidance on what comes next.

Foreign Policy spoke with retired Vice Adm. John Miller, who from 2012 to 2015 commanded the U.S. 5th Fleet, the main U.S. military force around the Persian Gulf. 

Foreign Policy: The Houthis initially took responsibility for the attack, but the Trump administration has been quick to blame Tehran. What do you make of the finger-pointing?

Vice Adm. John Miller: There is not any point where this is just the Houthis. This is Iranian action; this is part of the proxy war. This is a significant escalation on the part of the Iranians. Whether the drones came from Yemen or the attacks came from Iran, at the end of the day, none of that really matters, because if it came from Yemen, that’s part of the Houthis, and that was facilitated by the Iranians.

FP: Evidence is growing that the attack was massive in scope and sophisticated enough to avoid Saudi missile defenses. What does this say about Tehran’s capabilities?

JM: It’s too soon for us to really understand how the actual attack occurred, whether it was drones or cruise missiles. The facilities that were attacked are pretty vast, and so I’m guessing the Saudi Patriot [missile] defense system, it has limitations, of course, to it. It seems to me that the actual attack came from areas where their Patriot defense wasn’t complete. They kind of got in through the back door. 

It was a very sophisticated attack that couldn’t have been conducted, in my view, from the Houthis in Yemen or by some sort of rogue group in Iraq. It showed a sophisticated understanding of the missile defenses and how to strike in a way that the missile defenses were unable to respond. 

This was absolutely a coordinated attack, this was [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. They are connected directly to the supreme leader—there are no mistakes here.

FP: It seems like odd timing for an attack. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, just left the administration, and Trump seemed to be flirting with easing sanctions. Why would Tehran choose to torpedo diplomacy now?

JM: I’m fairly confident that the Iranians don’t see it the way you just laid out. They are in dire straits in terms of what’s happening to their economy, what’s happening to their currency, what’s happening in terms of unemployment. They are lashing out, I think, because that’s what they have to do, or at least what they perceive they have to do, in order to survive.

The other part is that I don’t think they see a good negotiation way ahead with the United States. If they can’t export oil—which they can’t, they are down to 150,000 barrels a day roughly—if they can’t export oil, why should anybody else? One way is to create this havoc in the Strait of Hormuz, but that’s a difficult way ahead, because it gets everybody’s attention.

But if you look at what happens in Saudi Arabia now, it’s a 50 percent reduction for some period of time—that’s a different way to do it. Strategically, it’s a brilliant response—it’s a way for them to even the table without affecting the Strait of Hormuz.

FP: How will the Saudis respond to the attack? Is this a red line for them?

JM: That remains to be seen. A better question is how do we align ourselves with what the Saudis want to do? If the Saudis want to just bomb the daylights out of Iranian oil facilities, that’s one thing—they can do it on their own, they don’t need our help. But they are not likely to do that, because I don’t think the Saudis want a direct confrontation.

It’s more likely this battle will be fought in Yemen. How much is the United States going to do in the future to support that activity? Are we going to be more supportive? What’s not good for the Iranians, actually, is that the United States can and the Saudis can up the game in Yemen, because the Houthis took responsibility for this. I think that’s where the fight needs to be fought.

FP: How likely is a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran?

JM: It wouldn’t be useful for us to directly confront Iran. There is an opportunity for us to shape the environment and to shape the region, but we would be better served—even though the secretary of state has made it clear that he thinks this is an Iranian intervention—we are better served by being more useful and helpful in Yemen than we would be by directly confronting Iran.

FP: What would increased U.S. involvement in Yemen look like?

JM: We can conduct airstrikes in Yemen in a way that’s more productive, I think, than what the Saudis can do, and we can put special operations forces in Yemen in ways that are helpful. It’s a twofer in my view: One, we can restore the legitimate United Nations-authorized government in Yemen, and two, it’s a defeat for the Iranians. So I am and I have always been an advocate of us doing more in Yemen than we’ve done.

We are not looking to invade, we are not looking to put 1,000 or 100,000 troops in Yemen, we could do more—not a lot more, but in a much more productive way than we’ve done in the past. There is a lot to be said for being fully in and getting the job done, not least the fact that the people of Yemen are suffering terrible hardship.

FP: The United States doesn’t rely as much on oil from Saudi Arabia or the rest of the Middle East. So why is the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure such a big deal for the United States?

JM: Oil is a global commodity; you take 6 million barrels a day off the market because the Saudis can’t produce it anymore, and that has a significant impact on the global economy. We don’t care about Saudi oil for the United States, we care about Saudi oil and oil out of the Gulf in general because that’s what feeds the global economy. That oil goes to China, it goes to Japan, it goes to South Korea, and now it’s not going there. That has a significant impact on the global economy, which has a significant impact on our economy. We love to say we are oil independent, but no nation in the world is oil independent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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