The brazen attack that led to the death of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has undoubtedly angered Tehran. Iranian authorities blamed Israel for the murder and vowed to retaliate quickly. There have been calls across the country to attack the Israeli port of Haifa, but this is unlikely.
In its asymmetrical confrontation with Israel and its main ally, the United States, Iran is well aware that hitting Israeli or American targets would result in all-out war. But there are other US allies in the region who have become easier targets in recent years.
Due to certain changes in the oil market and US foreign policy priorities, the Arab Gulf countries today find themselves in a more vulnerable position. It is for this reason that the United Arab Emirates – which recently formalized its alignment with Israel – rushed to condemn the murder of the Iranian nuclear scientist.
Indeed, the UAE has reason to fear. At the start of the summer, the Houthis, Iran’s proxies in Yemen, resumed their attacks on infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Abu Dhabi. In June and July, they used missiles and drones to attack military installations in Riyadh and various targets in the southern provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran.
In November, at least three attacks were carried out. On November 11, the Houthis caused minor damage to the oil facilities at Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Reading Sea port. On November 23, they launched a missile attack on an oil distribution facility in Jeddah. Two days later, an oil tanker delivering fuel to the port of Shuqaiq was struck by a mine.
These attacks on the Red Sea ports were most likely aimed at demonstrating the Houthis’ ability to hit targets across the Arabian Peninsula, far from the territories they control. They were a warning and a reminder of the September 2019 strikes on Aramco’s oil infrastructure in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia, which temporarily reduced Saudi oil production by around 5.7 million. barrels per day (bpd).
The timing was not accidental either – the Houthi attacks escalated amid increased diplomatic activity between Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Washington. They also coincided with speculation about possible “farewell” measures against Iran by the outgoing Trump administration.
It is important to note that Iran has started using these “infrastructure terror” tactics relatively recently. Until a few years ago, the threat of Iranian retaliation was to close the Strait of Hormuz to disrupt Gulf oil exports – which Tehran was in fact neither willing nor able to do.
As more than 20% of global oil exports passed through the Strait – including that of Iran – powerful buyers, like the United States, had taken steps to secure the Gulf and prevent any major disruption to transit oil tankers. Any hostile Iranian action in the Strait of Hormuz would have risked starting a war, which the Iranian authorities would like to avoid.
The echo of the shale revolution
But over the past two years, the situation has changed. First, with the events of the Arab Spring and the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014, Iran took an important position in Yemen, which gave it even more influence over the Gulf states. Second, by the second half of the 2010s, the shale oil boom in the United States not only made the United States one of the largest exporters of hydrocarbons, but also led to a fairly oversupply of oil. stable in the world market.
As a result, political crises in the Middle East began to worry oil consumers less and less, as Washington began to reconsider its obligations to its Gulf partners. It is important to note that in 2018-2019, neither the instability of oil production in Libya nor the practical disappearance of Iran and Venezuela from the market had a lasting impact on prices. At best, these events have only prevented a further fall in prices.
Even the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities had only a short-term effect, although the scale of the loss of oil production in the market was unprecedented.
In their aftermath, the United States has refrained from any major response to Iran’s aggressive activity. Then the Chairman of the General Staff, General Joseph Dunford, made it clear that even an increase in the number of American troops in the Middle East and the supply of new weapons to Saudi Arabia would not fully guarantee the security of its oil infrastructure.
Thus, the Gulf countries not only felt left almost on their own to fend for themselves and protect their oil production, but they also had to deal with attempts by US oil producers to take advantage of the situation and increase their oil production. market share at their expense.
Three months later, when an American contractor was killed in an attack on an Iraqi base organized by Iranian proxies, the United States did not stay put. In early January 2020, an American drone strike killed Qassem Suleimani, a senior commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, near Baghdad.
This demonstrated to the Gulf that the United States has “red lines” that they will not allow the Iranians to cross, but they concern the lives of American troops, not the oil infrastructure of any of its allies. In other words, an aggressive American approach to Iran does not necessarily mean that the United States is ready to protect the Gulf countries from retaliation from Tehran.
Washington’s reluctance to spend significant military resources to protect Gulf oil has given Tehran some leeway. This development comes at a particularly difficult time for regional oil producers.
The current oil glut linked to the shale boom of the 2010s and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic has drastically reduced the income of the Gulf monarchies, forcing them to fight for market share. In this context, any disruption in oil production is particularly painful for the Gulf States as it threatens an already declining source of income.
Tehran, on the other hand, is in a better position. In June, the Iranian government launched construction of the 1,100 km (620 mile) Goureh-Jask pipeline, which will allow it to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. US sanctions also cut it off from the formal oil market, making it immune to disruptions in oil transit in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Tehran, the Houthis have demonstrated their ability to strike oil installations and transit routes in the Red Sea. This means that even if Riyadh invests in the development of an oil infrastructure that will not depend on the Strait of Hormuz, it still would not secure its oil exports.
What it actually means is that the US shale boom has inadvertently given Iran the upper hand in the Gulf and undermined US and Israeli efforts to create an Arab axis against it. Today, Tehran is quite capable of putting pressure on the Arab monarchies to restrict or at least not support the Americans in their anti-Iranian activities. It appears that the Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure against Iran has failed to some extent.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.