What the Iranian — or Yemeni and Iranian — attack on the Saudi oil refinery means is more significant than meets the eye. It reminds us how small the world has become. Four implications follow from that event, and they are all important.
First, a decision is coming for Iran, the United States and allies. The present “maximum pressure” campaign, involving sanctions against Iran, cannot be indefinite. “Maximum pressure” will end in one of three ways: Iran capitulating on nuclear weapons development, followed by constructive diplomacy; Iran growing more strident, violent and detached from global expectations, resulting in strikes on Iran; or regime change within. Which outcome depends on Iran, not the United States or our allies. Iran’s time for decision is short. Iranians need to make up their mind.
Second, use of armed UAVs with a range of up to 900 miles to destroy Saudi critical infrastructure and impair global oil is a wake-up call for Western defense establishments. Whether this attack came from Iran, Iranian QUDs forces in Iraq or Iranian supported Yemeni rebels is academic.
It happened. What was theoretical — use of armed UAVs at great distance — is now actual. If not the V-1 or V-2 rockets of Nazi Germany, armed UAVs are a new and serious threat to civilized nations. If not hypersonic, they are still lethal.
As a result, new efforts to refine and deploy directed energy weapons, or at a minimum the equivalent of Israel’s Iron Dome, will likely be accelerated regionally and globally. That layered system — not widely used outside Israel — triangulates radars, electro-optical sensors and interceptors to disable incoming projectiles; it can be used against UAVs and would be more effective with directed energy weapons.
Israel’s Iron Dome — heavily financed by the United States — has destroyed 90 percent of missiles launched on Israel since 2011, more than 1,200. The likelihood is that this technology will gain currency on a wider scale — and should. Iran has turned another page, again elevating global insecurity.
Third, this attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility — disabling half of Saudi oil production and 5 percent of global supply – drives another point home. Whether from state-sponsors of terrorism or rogue terrorists, the world’s energy supplies are vulnerable.
Expanding that observation, global energy sources — oil production and refinement, shipping lanes, power grids — are an open invitation for rogue nations and actors if not prioritized, protected, hardened and made redundant.
If a handful of UAVs can knock out 5 percent of the world’s oil, mining the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz 20 percent, and attacks on Western power grids more, protecting critical energy infrastructure must become a top security priority.
The corollary: President Trump and Republicans in Congress are correct. U.S. energy independence has never been more important. National security — defending the nation and warfighting — are always energy dependent. The less we depend on others, the safer we are.
Finally, this attack reminds us that ethnic violence — particularly in the Middle East, and more particularly between Shia and Sunni adherents, as between Arabs and Israelis — looks intractable, interminable and unstoppable. It is not.
Middle East conflict is intergenerational, integrated with geopolitics, enervating and increasingly dangerous. But it is the product of human dysfunction; humans can also undo it. That is why more attention should be given to the Trump administration’s regional peace plan, rooted in the president’s well-received May 2017 speech to Middle East leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was a good speech. It is a thoughtful plan. Time is short for Iran. Time may be short for others. Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia reminds us how small the world is.
• Robert B. Charles served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as assistant secretary of State under Colin Powell, and counsel to the U.S. House National Security subcommittee for five years. A former litigator, he taught law at Harvard University’s Extension School and is the author of “Eagles and Evergreens” (North Country Press, 2018).
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