Iran Attacked Saudi Arabia's Oil Facilities, But Not For the Reason You Think

Stratfor Worldview

Key point: This is Iran's way of demanding a way out of sanctions.

Iranian protestations of innocence notwithstanding, the arrows following last week's massive drone and missile strikes on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia all point toward Tehran. In this, there's one key question that's on everybody's mind: What is Iran after? While Tehran's aggression has made the probability of a U.S. or Saudi military strike on Iran higher in the short term, the Islamic republic does not necessarily intend to trigger such a strike and the ramifications it would entail. On the contrary, Iran is hoping to force an end to the United States' maximum pressure campaign sooner, rather than later — even if that requires riling up the world's superpower even further.

Getting on the Front Foot

Ever since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iranian nuclear deal, in May 2018, Iran's hard-liners have emphasized that the country must maintain credible deterrence. This means that Iran's escalation has served two interests: Make the United States and its allies pay a higher cost for its pressure campaign and establish the credibility of Iran's threats. Iran has clearly accepted the risk that such an escalation could result in a conflict with the United States, but its demonstration of a credible regional threat and a willingness to use it is forcing the United States to think twice about conducting a strike on Iran.

Ultimately, Iran is striking while the iron is hot because the status quo is simply unsustainable. The country's economy is dependent on oil exports, which have collapsed under the weight of U.S. sanctions. As a result, inflation has risen above 40 percent, reserves of hard cash have dwindled and basic necessities like food and medicine have become scarce. This does not mean that Iran's economy is on the brink of collapse, but it does mean that Tehran has almost certainly determined that negotiations with the United States are inevitable; the only questions for Iran are when and on whose terms. 

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