The beating drums of war in the Persian Gulf were replaced this week with the sounds of actual explosions. On Sunday, mysterious blasts ripped holes in four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, docked in the United Arab Emirates, and on Tuesday, armed drones struck Saudi oil pipelines west of Riyadh.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen boasted of their successful attack on the pipelines and promised there would be more to follow; no group has claimed responsibility for bombing the ships. Iran was quick to denounce the attacks, saying they should be investigated.
Iran, however, is the primary suspect in both cases, and the fingerprints at each crime scene point back to Tehran. Without massive Iranian support, the rebels in Yemen could not have flown armed unmanned drones hundreds of kilometers to precisely target an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Without training and guidance, they could not have sabotaged four tankers without leaving behind evidence.
The suspicion of Iranian involvement is bolstered by the fact that both attacks, on the pipeline and the tankers, were aimed at Saudi targets directly linked to its ability to produce and deliver oil. In recent weeks, even before Iran and the United States intensified their recent bout of saber-rattling, the Iranians warned that if they were prohibited from exporting oil from the Gulf due to sanctions, “no one will be able to export oil from the region.”
This message, to Washington and Riyadh, wasn’t hard to understand.
Furthermore, the Iranians seem to have made an effort to make sure the damage from the two attacks was minimal. A type of warning signal, or incendiary message to the United States and its allies, as if to say: It’s true that we, the Iranians, don’t want war, but look what we can do if you act against us. This is also why, in both cases and similar to many others in the past, the Iranians opted to perpetrate the attacks via proxies, to prevent a situation in which Tehran could be held directly responsible.
The Iranian public is very concerned about a military clash with the United States, hence the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hastily declared that he doesn’t believe a war will erupt. In the same breath, however, he also said he would never agree to renegotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, Iran’s transition from words to deeds is, in and of itself, an escalation and further inflames tensions in the Gulf. Had the attacks on the Saudi tankers or oil fields been more destructive, either could have instantly ignited a conflagration.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.