The Iranian attack against the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia raises a series of questions about Iran’s current direction. Clearly, a weighty decision preceded the attack, as the scope of the attack and its global implications can definitely amount to the crossing of a red line and a belligerent confrontation, not just opposite Saudi Arabia but opposite the United States as well. The timing of the attack seems odd in view of the background voices of reconciliation and easement of sanctions and the apparent preparations for an Iranian-American summit meeting. The timing only exacerbates the dilemma regarding the direction where the Iranian leadership is heading.
In my estimate, the Iranian leadership operates on the basis of a sober and sophisticated view, and this attack was a part of a plan that has to do – of all things – with its political survival. In recent months, the Iranian leadership has found itself under increasing distress domestically, primarily as a result of the economic sanctions and their far-reaching implications on the Iranian public. These sanctions were imposed after the Iranian people had felt some degree of relief in recent years, and therefore the setback has only worsened the sense of despair and public outcry.
The public criticism has been further intensified by the additional weight of the billions of dollars invested in the failing project of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Lebanon, a project that has collapsed completely recently with the repeated attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah objectives.
Rallying the Home Front
This state of affairs has positioned the Iranian regime opposite a substantial threat to its stability. The regime has been finding it extremely difficult to explain its policy and failures to the masses. The primary Iranian concern is domestic unrest, which is the most severe threat to the regime. Such unrest can erupt at any time if the sanctions remain in effect, even in their present format.
Therefore, the only way to defuse the domestic rage and threat is to rally the people around the regime. Such rallying can take place through a military campaign revolving around the main issue – the sanctions imposed on the oil market. The Iranian regime knows its people and their national pride better than anyone else, and the Iranian leaders count on the Iranians to rally around their leaders at a time of a military confrontation. Accordingly, in recent months, Iran has warmed up the Arabian Gulf sector with the intention of creating a military provocation. The Iranians had evidently expected some kind of response that would lead to a confrontation but when such a response failed to arrive, the Iranians initiated yet another move, which – as far as Iran is concerned – has been much more effective as it had a double impact. Firstly, it delivered a blow to Iran’s sworn enemy, Saudi Arabia, thereby winning points domestically among the masses in Iran. Secondly, it harmed the apple of the eye of global economy – oil, while, in fact, using the tool of economic warfare against the US and the West.
As far as the Iranian regime is concerned, the attack, which severely weakened the Saudis, has raised the level of economic pressure on the European countries, pushing them to exert even more pressure on the US to engage in a dialog with Iran. Moreover, the Iranian leaders estimate that President Trump will not embark on a military escapade. They are not apprehensive about such a campaign, as in their view it would only strengthen them vis-à-vis the Iranian people, as well as subsequently improving their opening conditions for future negotiations. It may be expected, therefore, that as the pressure exerted on the Iranian regime increases and its weakness worsens, paradoxically, they will step up their provocations and possibly even raise the bar of belligerent operations.
Dr. Udi Levi, formerly a senior official of the Israeli intelligence community and National Security Council, is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy & Security (JISS)