What You Need to Know About the Attacks on Saudi Oil Facilities

So far, attacks attributed to Iran haven’t resulted in a military confrontation with the United States.

A picture taken on Sept. 15 shows an Aramco oil facility at the edge of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
A picture taken on Sept. 15 shows an Aramco oil facility at the edge of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

A Saturday attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil production infrastructure jolted international oil markets and significantly escalated tensions between Iran and the United States, with President Donald Trump threatening that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” to strike back. 

But much about the attack remains unclear, including who carried it out and from where the projectiles or drones that have succeeded in taking half of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production offline were launched. U.S. officials have blamed Iran, which has denied responsibility. 

The Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement Monday that “initial investigations have indicated that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian weapons. Investigations are still ongoing to determine the source of the attack.”  

Houthi rebels in Yemen, who enjoy Tehran’s backing, claimed responsibility, but analysts question whether the group would be capable of executing an attack of such complexity and daring. 

When asked whether Iran was responsible for the attacks on Monday, Trump said the evidence pointed toward Tehran. “It’s looking that way,” he said. “That’s being checked out right now.” 

U.S. officials have released satellite imagery of the attacks’ aftermath but have not made public any other intelligence documenting Iran’s purported involvement. Other major powers, including the European Union and China, are urging caution and warning against prematurely assigning blame.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, here are the key questions to consider amid a key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran and the United States. 

How was the attack carried out? 

It’s still unclear exactly how the attack was carried out, but signs point to either a missile strike, drone attack, or some combination of the two. The attacks devastated Saudi oil fields and the oil-processing plants at Abqaiq.

U.S. officials have described 17 points of impact on the facility, and satellite imagery of the aftermath show regular, accurate points of impact on the facilities in question. The imagery gives little clear indication as to the location from which the attacks were launched. 

Who is believed to be responsible?  

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack, claiming that its forces sent 10 drones to strike the facility. On Monday, the group warned of further strikes on Saudi oil facilities, claiming its weapons could reach anywhere in Saudi Arabia.

But U.S. officials have cast doubt on the Houthis’ claim, arguing that the sophisticated nature of the attack suggested that it was beyond the capabilities of the rebel group.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to point a finger at Iran. “We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran’s attacks,” he said in a tweet on Saturday, adding that there was no evidence the attacks came from Yemen. He did not offer any evidence to back up his statement. 

Houthi rebels have previously launched missiles and drones against targets in Saudi territory, thanks in large part to capabilities they get from Iran, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank. But never before have the Houthis hit such critical targets so deep inside Saudi territory. 

U.S. officials say that government satellite images showing the points of impact at the Saudi facilities indicate that the strikes came from the north or northwest—from Iran, Iraq, or the Persian Gulf, and not from Yemen. However, some of the images, which were released on Sunday, appear to show damage on the western side of the oil tanks, complicating the officials’ explanation.

One plausible, intriguing possibility is that the attack was launched by Houthi operatives working inside Saudi Arabia. The Houthi statement taking credit for the attack thanked “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom,” and the use of operatives inside Saudi Arabia would appear to address some of the technical objections about how the Houthis could have struck targets from such a distance. 

Could a hard-liner faction in Iran have carried out the attack on its own? 

Factions within Iran, including reformers and hard-liner groups such as the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have vied for influence over Iran’s foreign and security policy for years, particularly in embracing the 2015 nuclear deal. 

But most experts doubt one faction within Iran launched these attacks. “The strategic nature of this target, to my mind, makes this a fully authorized move by the [Iranian government’s] leadership—no rogue action by rogue elements,” said Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Suzanne Maloney, an expert on the Middle East at the Brookings Institution, said it was too soon to characterize Iran’s involvement in the attack. But if Iran were behind the strikes, Maloney said, “there is zero likelihood that an attack of this nature and this precision was undertaken without the assent and awareness of Iran’s senior leadership.”

Could the attacks have been launched from Iraq?

Other experts and officials raised the prospect of Iranian proxies launching the attack from either Iraqi or Syrian territory; the United States alleges that a May drone strike on Saudi Arabia was launched from Iraq. 

But the Iraqi government vehemently denies reports the attack was launched from its own soil. On Monday, Baghdad said Pompeo called Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in part to tell him he had information confirming Iraqi territory “was not used to carry out this attack.” The State Department has not yet commented on this readout from the Iraqi government. 

Could Iran have launched the attack from its own soil?

This situation, which U.S. officials say is a possible scenario, would represent a significant escalation. Iran’s typical playbook, current and former U.S. officials say, is to launch attacks through its proxies in other countries to retain a veneer of plausible deniability. 

“That would be out of the norm of Iranian ‘gray zone’ or deniable activity,” said Leaf, representing a “huge step up the escalatory ladder” of the showdown between Iran and the United States and its regional allies. 

Launching a military attack from inside its own borders would expose Iran to potentially devastating blowback. The country has relied on proxies to defend its interests in part because of its inability to use its conventional military to defend the country. Launching missiles from its own soil against its archrival would represent the abandonment of this strategy. 

“The Iranians have excelled at the art of asymmetric warfare,” said Ali Vaez, who directs the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “They work very hard to make sure that they don’t render Iran vulnerable to retaliation.” 

How will the United States respond?

Despite tensions between the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia under Trump, no country—other than, perhaps, Iran—wants open conflict to directly threaten more Gulf oil infrastructure, a linchpin of the global energy markets. But the Saudi foreign ministry said in its statement that the kingdom “has the capability and resolve to defend its land and people, and to forcefully respond to these aggressions.” 

Amid his ongoing standoff with Iran, Trump has declared that the loss of American life represents a red line for U.S. military retaliation. An attack on Iran to avenge damage to Saudi oil infrastructure doesn’t present an attractive political calculus a year ahead of elections for a president who has ostensibly made the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East a central promise of his presidency. 

On Monday, Trump said he’d “certainly like to avoid” a war with Iran and that Pompeo and other senior administration officials will soon travel to Saudi Arabia. He said diplomacy with Iran is “never exhausted,” adding, “I know they want to make a deal. … At some point it will work out.”

Leaf, the former U.S. ambassador, said the United States should invest in a new diplomatic effort with its European allies and other countries with interests in the region to ease tensions with Tehran. “This will mean it is open season on Gulf energy infrastructure, unless there is a concerted, muscular response from the international community, and particularly those who pride themselves on strong relations with Tehran,” she said, citing Japan, China, and Russia. 

Months of attacks on oil tankers and the shootdown of a U.S. drone have not been enough to draw the United States into war with Iran, and instead Washington has relied on sanctions and cyberweapons to strike back. “If past is prelude, the United States would prefer to take retaliatory action that falls just short of kinetic action,” Vaez said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack