The current episode of “CSI: Saudi Arabia” is turning out to be particularly long and complicated. As in the veteran, multiple-version American television series, the investigation of the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities on September 14 rests on an ever-growing mountain of evidence. Western intelligence services already know for certain that Iran was behind that unprecedented attack, which wrought extensive damage to the Saudi petroleum industry, shook up the global energy market and truly horrified the rulers of the Gulf states.
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But it’s a long way from that conclusion to a concrete response. This week, Iranian President Hassan Rohani was given a royal welcome at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The leaders of the powers that remain committed to the nuclear accord with Tehran posed happily with him for photographs. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looked positively thrilled – he was caught on film with an ecstatic smile on his face – but maybe that’s because he had managed to escape the chaos of Brexit momentarily.
On the other hand, a meeting between Rohani and U.S. President Donald Trump did not take place, despite the many feelers that had been put out in advance. The Iranians don’t seem to be in any hurry for such an encounter. They have additional demands to make of the Americans before moving to the stage of open and direct contacts: above all, they demand the removal of the re-imposed U.S. sanctions, which have struck hard at the regime in Tehran, but Trump hasn’t afforded them that achievement.
The military campaign Iran launched to reduce the pressure of the sanctions began in May. It is being conducted systematically, consistently and patiently. In the past five months, the Iranians, aided by the Houthi insurgents in Yemen and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, have attacked a series of Saudi and Emirate targets, most of them connected to the oil industry and its maritime transportation routes. The peak was the attack on the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil-processing facilities two weeks ago.
The Iranians have demonstrated impressive planning and operational abilities in their campaign. A combination of intermediate-range cruise missiles and drones struck the Saudi targets with devastating precision after evading the expensive American-made defense systems the Saudis had purchased. Various attempts at obfuscation helped create the impression the Iranians hoped to leave after the attack. Tehran denied having anything to do with it, as usual; the Houthis intimated that they were responsible (this time, untruly); and an analysis of part of the flight path seemed to point to Iraqi-based Shiite militias. In reality, however, the decisive conclusion that is emerging is that it was an operation managed and coordinated by Tehran.