Saturday’s drone attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia, the largest oil-processing plant in the world, temporarily cut off an estimated 5% of the world’s oil supply — about 5.7 million barrels per day. Oil prices spiked nearly 20% before settling back down a bit on Saudi promises to dip into reserves. Could there be a clearer illustration of the need for American energy independence?
President Donald Trump said, “I have authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.” He also warned that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” for a response against “the culprit … depending on verification.”
Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, who have been battling the Saudis in a proxy war, claimed responsibility for the attack, while Iran itself denied any role. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” and he instead pointed to Tehran: “Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”
If Iran was indeed the culprit, the timing is noteworthy. National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hawkish and staunch critic of Iran, left the White House last week amidst disagreement on policy, particularly pertaining to Iran. President Trump, who did rightly nuke Barack Obama’s bad deal with Iran, has sent numerous signals of late that he wishes to soften policy toward Tehran. That includes floating a personal meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at this week’s UN General Assembly confab, as well as contemplating support for a possible $15 billion bribe to the mullahs from the French. Iran is testing Trump.
Iran may also hope to boost its struggling economy with higher oil prices. An unstable oil market would pressure the U.S. to lift sanctions on Iranian oil exports. The Iran-supporting Russians may also benefit from higher prices given that well over half of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, as would their socialist fellow travelers in Venezuela. In any case, Shia Iran most certainly seeks regional hegemony, and Sunni Saudi Arabia is the most sizable and capable Islamic opposition. As Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it, “This competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a struggle for both the sacred and profane: for leadership of the Muslim world, for individual Muslim hearts and minds, for the Middle East regional balance, and for oil.”
Going forward, there are a lot of questions. Primarily this from National Review’s Jim Geraghty: “Nobody — or perhaps its more accurate to say few Americans — want a war with Iran, but the Iranians get a say in that, too. Assume the coming days bring proof that Iran launched an attack that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. What would the appropriate response from the United States be?”