The Saudis say Iran was behind the strikes on its major oil sites, but the last thing they want is war

  • Saudi Arabia has concluded that the attacks on its oil sites this weekend were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” a less direct accusation than that presented by the US.
  • Saudi Arabia has been hesitant to escalate tensions with Iran beyond the proxy war the two countries have been fighting in Yemen.
  • “We are trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region,” one Saudi official said Wednesday.
  • The Saudi military is capable of fighting Iran, but the attack exposed deep vulnerabilities in their major oil infrastructure and is forcing them to think twice about conflict.
  • “Iran has less to lose than Saudi Arabia,” a military analyst told Insider, explaining that Saudi Arabia’s ability to severely harm Iran “is not going to be much consolation” when their energy infrastructure is in ruins.
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Saudi Arabia says the devastating attacks on its oil facilities this weekend were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” and while the country’s military says that “those responsible should be held accountable for their actions,” the last thing the Saudis want is more conflict, especially with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has exercised restraint, but the US has been much more direct in its accusations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, said Saturday that “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” En route to Saudi Arabia Wednesday, he called the strikes “an Iranian attack” and an “act of war.”

Prince Khalid Bin Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi Ambassador to London, told the BBC Wednesday that the drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil sites, attacks the US quickly blamed on Iran, were “almost certainly Iran-backed” strikes. But, he added, “we are trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

At a Saudi defense ministry press conference Wednesday, the military presented evidence of “Iranian aggression” and called the strikes “an attack against the international community, the whole world economy, and global trade.”

The Saudi military has, however, given no indication that it intends to retaliate with force. The Saudi military is capable of fighting Iran, but the attack exposed deep vulnerabilities in their major oil infrastructure and is forcing them to think twice about conflict, experts say.

“Saudi Arabia certainly has the more technologically-developed military compared to Iran. Most of Iran’s stuff is decades behind what the Saudis purchase from the United States,” Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst with Stratfor told Insider.

“The Saudis can inflict a tremendous amount of pain on the Iranians, but they cannot stop the Iranians from doing the same,” he explained, adding that “Iran has less to lose than Saudi Arabia.”

Iran is under tremendous pressure, and their economy has been severely crippled by sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. This situation makes the country much more willing to takes risks, such as mining oil tankers, pirating shipping routes, shooting down drones, or attacking energy facilities, all activities that have been linked to Iran, to signal its displeasure and force a change to the status quo.

The situation is different in Saudi Arabia, which has an economy vulnerable to Iranian attacks.

The Iranians “have put their efforts into an asymmetric capability where they can still ensure, despite their relative conventional military weakness, they can still inflict heavy pain,” Lamrani said, explaining that “Iran understands that the Saudis could really damage Iran with their high-tech weapons, but Iran still has the ability to penetrate their defenses and really hurt their core economy, which is energy exports.”

He explained that the Saudis are “always extremely hesitant to escalate to a full-scale war” because while they could destroy targets in Iran, “that is not going to be much consolation when much of your energy infrastructure is in ruins.”

At the core of current tensions is less the decades-old enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia and more tensions between Iran and the US, Lamrani said, adding, “This is a really tough position for Saudi Arabia to be in.”