- Published: Tuesday, 01 October 2019
In a CBS interview that was heavily excerpted in other media on Monday, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman reiterated his government’s belief that Iran is responsible for a drone and missile attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, which took place on September 14.
The interview also provided the de facto Saudi leader, known informally as MBS, with an opportunity to urge the adoption of more assertive international policies to constrain the Iranian regime.
“If the world does not take a strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests,” the crown prince said, noting that the Middle East provides roughly 30 percent of the world’s energy supplies, comprises four percent of the global GDP, and is the site of 20 percent of all global trade passages. “Imagine all of these three things stop,” he said. “This means a total collapse of the global economy.”
This message emerged less than a week after the three European signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal released a statement against the backdrop of the United Nations General Assembly in which they condemned the attack and accepted that Iran was responsible for it.
The Iranian regime has formally denied this, pointing to claims of responsibility offered by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, whom Iran supports. But the White House was quick to dismiss that claim and to argue that the Houthi do not have adequate capabilities to penetrate that far into Saudi territory.
The Houthi have struck shorter-range targets in the past, in retaliation for Saudi leadership of a coalition that aims to push the Houthi back and reestablish the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
While the Iranians acknowledge political and diplomatic support, they deny providing the Houthi with weapons or other military assistance. Yet numerous weapons caches have been seized in the Arabian Sea, where they were determined to be en route from Iran to Yemen. On one hand, this suggests that the September 14 attack could have been carried out using Iranian weapons while still being conducted by Yemen. But Iran’s adversaries maintain that such advanced weapons have not made their way to Yemen, and in any event, the attack seemed to have originated to the north.
In the days following the attack, Kuwait reported having detected the missiles passing over its territory, and the US last announced that it had identified the origin of the attack in southern Iran. The White House further stated that operatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been spotted massing in that area, though the significance of the movement was not known until after the attack had been launched.
On Monday, the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), based on information from MEK sources inside Iran, sought to further clarify international understanding of the attack. In a press conference at Washington’s National Press Club, representatives of the organization provided details about the type of weapons used, the base from which the attack originated, and the logistics that went into planning and executing it. The NCRI also reported that some IRGC personnel either remained at the base, which is not officially under their control or returned to it in the week after the September 14 attack, raising concerns about a possible follow-up.
The coalition’s information stemmed from an intelligence network developed by its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK). Sources within that network were reported privy to the internal mechanisms of the planning of the attack, and the NCRI was able to report on Monday that the initial order and final approval both came from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
IRGC officers were naturally also involved in the planning stages. And in an arguably more surprising disclosure, the NCRI also said that President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also contributed, with the former being the head of the regime’s Supreme National Security Council.
The NCRI’s account of Rouhani’s involvement in an attack on Saudi Arabia may help to undermine the moderation narrative among Western policymakers and media outlets. But that narrative has already been weakened by the Rouhani administration’s public statements in the midst of escalating tensions with the West.
Even as the fallout from the September 14 attack contributed to that escalation, Rouhani and Zarif both continued to insist that they would not even talk to their American counterparts against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly unless US sanctions were first removed in their entirety. And Rouhani went a step further on Friday by publicly claiming that the White House had offered to do just that.
The US State Department rejected that claim as baseless, and President Trump posted a tweet in which he said his Iranian counterpart had asked for the lifting of sanctions as a precondition for negotiations. “I said, of course, NO!” Trump added.
The discrepancy between these two accounts went unexplained, and it is unclear what motive they might have been for dishonesty on one side. Any false claim regarding the prospects for a meeting would quickly be exposed by France, Britain, and/or Germany, who have been trying to broker that meeting as they work to preserve the nuclear agreement that they signed in 2015 along with the US, Iran, Russia, and China.
Trump pulled out of that agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May of last year. Since then, the US and its European allies have seemingly been working at cross purposes. But Iran has consistently expressed displeasure with the limits of European willingness or ability to counter US sanctions. As a result, some experts have interpreted a range of Iran’s provocative activities – including the attack on Saudi Arabia – as part of its blackmailing campaign to pressure the E3 into making more concessions to the Islamic Republic.
If this has been a motivating goal for Iran, there are growing signs that it has backfired. Last week’s E3 statement acknowledging Iranian culpability for the attack was one such sign. And that was also cited in editorials by Al Jazeera and other outlets to suggest that the Europeans were drifting closer to the American strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime
The progress in that direction continued on Monday when it was reported that the Europeans had communicated to Iran that they are absolutely unwilling to accept a “fourth step” away from Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. The Iranians have violated a number of specific terms of that agreement in recent months. The threatened fourth step is expected to involve further acceleration of uranium enrichment, and possibly also the resumption of plutonium-producing activities at the Arak heavy water plant.
The Europeans have reportedly made it clear that any such actions would be considered grounds for Britain, France, and Germany to wash their hands of the agreement and re-impose their sanctions on the Iranian regime as the US already did over the course of the past year. Although this message was communicated privately to Iranian officials, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi responded with public condemnation, thereby affirming commitment to the “resistance” strategy championed by Supreme Leader Khamenei.
If the three European countries and the European Union as a whole cease to implement the JCPOA, it could also open the door for expansion of the existing sanctions. This, too, is a strategy that the US has already adopted. In response to the attack on Saudi Arabia, the White House announced that it would isolate the Iranian national bank after designating it as a sponsor of terrorism. This constitutes the most severe sanctions ever imposed by the US on another country.
Even prior to that, the US had already taken a number of unprecedented steps, including the blacklisting of the entire IRGC and the Iranian Foreign Minister. The latter measure contributed to uncertainty about Iran’s participation in the UN General Assembly, as the sanctions technically bar Zarif from travel to the US or its allies. Nevertheless, Zarif has continued to receive visas for travel to UN events, though his movements within the US have remained extremely limited.
The effect of these measures was brought into sharp focus recently when it was reported that the US had refused to grant Zarif permission to travel even a few blocks away from the UN building in New York, where he hoped to visit an Iranian ambassador who is being treated for cancer.
After Zarif complained about the situation on Twitter, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell responded by rebuking the Foreign Minister’s “hypocrisy,” citing both his use of a social media network that is banned in Iran and his service to a government that routinely takes foreign citizens and dual nationals hostage. Meanwhile, the State Department used Zarif’s attempted hospital visit as an opportunity to exert new pressure on Tehran over the plight of wrongfully detained Americans.
“We have relayed to the Iranian mission that the travel request will be granted if Iran releases a U.S. citizen,” the department said in a statement. But when asked about this offer, Rouhani said that his government was still expecting a reciprocal gesture from the US following the June release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and US permanent resident who was arrested without cause after being invited to give a talk on women in the field of technology.
“The ball stands in America’s court,” Rouhani said. But it is not clear that Zakka was released as a gesture to the West, given that Lebanon’s Iran-backed militia Hezbollah reportedly appealed to Tehran on behalf of his family. In any event, the Iranian president’s comment seemed to confirm what many critics have observed about the Iranian regime: that it expects to be paid in one way or another for a pattern of hostage-taking, broken commitments, and outright attacks on regional neighbors.