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After the Saudi oil attack, will the U.S. and Saudis start a war with Iran? Here are 3 things to know.

Iran — and Saudi Arabia — might prefer to let responsibility for the attack remain unclear.

- September 17, 2019

Over the weekend, Saudi oil facilities were attacked, in the latest oil-related skirmish in the Middle East this year — leading some observers to fear that this could escalate dangerously. Initially, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for the attack. Since then, the Trump administration accused Iran of conducting the attacks, and the Saudi government stated Iranian weapons were involved — all of which Tehran denies. This politically explosive blame game could end in war.

Whether or how Iran was involved remains unclear. But even if Iran’s participation ends up an “open secret” — widely accepted as true but officially unacknowledged — leaders of the three nations have diplomatic off-ramps that they could use to de-escalate the situation.

Here are three things to know about this simmering crisis.

1. Iran (and Saudi Arabia) might prefer to let responsibility for the attack remain ambiguous.

My research has analyzed the rise of covert, deniable approaches to war. Sometimes, nations and other groups prefer deniable methods because they reduce the likelihood of escalation, which can be very costly and hard to control. Blurring or denying responsibility can reduce the chances for further escalation by allowing both sides to save face instead of facing off.

Let’s suppose Iran designed and directly participated in the Saudi oil attack. When planning for the attack, Iran surely would have considered the likely responses by Saudi Arabia, the United States and others. By attacking covertly, Iran might be able to damage Saudi oil production while escaping military reprisal. For Tehran, the ideal outcome could be leaving enough evidence of its involvement to send a signal of strength to rivals while leaving enough ambiguity to take the teeth out of any response.

But why might Saudi Arabia be willing to accept that deniability, rather than blaming Iran for conducting the attack? That wouldn’t make sense if Riyadh wanted to retaliate aggressively; ambiguity would make any response look illegitimate while jeopardizing allies’ support.

But suppose the Saudis don’t want to retaliate openly, fearing tit-for-tat escalation and preferring more covert responses? In that case, allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong, upholding their reputation both domestically and in the region. The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared U.S. intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation.

2. The Trump administration is blaming Iran. Why, and what are the risks?

Even before releasing any evidence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Tehran as the culprit. A first set of declassified intelligence, including satellite photos, has been released to help substantiate his claim. Confusingly, Trump’s tweet about the attack late Sunday did not name Iran and deferred to the Saudis on who did it and how to respond, which may indicate the U.S. position is not yet settled.

Why point at Iran? It’s possible that the U.S. intelligence community heard of the attack before it happened or has already conclusively identified it with evidence not yet public. Blaming Iran can be preparation for a muscular form of retaliation. Even if this isn’t ultimately chosen, the White House might believe that making a plausible case about Iran will help its policy of squeezing it with sanctions, known as “maximum pressure.”

This strategy can be dangerous. Credibility is not easy to build. Establishing sponsorship in public requires conducting diplomacy by intelligence disclosure, which has risks. The Trump administration has used this approach, publicly releasing intelligence to back up its contention that Iran sponsored an attack on an oil tanker this summer.

One big risk is that the United States could jeopardize intelligence sources. My research with Allison Carnegie shows that disclosures can reveal technical systems, analytic assessments or human sources, teaching potential intelligence targets how to avoid detection. Further, if the White House doesn’t effectively establish Iran’s direct role in the attack, its next intelligence-based claim may be ignored.

3. So what comes next?

These two scenarios are most likely.

Scenario 1: The attack can’t be definitively pinned on Iran.

We don’t yet know the evidence linking Iran to the attack, or what will emerge in the coming days. Iran or the Houthis could release new proof that distances Iran from the attack, such as images or video that establish Houthi sponsorship. The Saudis may refrain from openly accusing Iran, either because they lack evidence or to avoid escalation. Iran’s role could remain uncertain.

In this scenario, don’t expect further escalation. Neither the United States nor the Saudis would be able to justify a harsh military response. Political leaders could use this as a reason to take no action beyond economic sanctions or diplomatic exhortations. The news cycle will turn over, and international politics will go on.

Scenario 2: Iranian sponsorship becomes the dominant narrative.

Several governments may release detailed evidence of Iran’s involvement, and the international community may become increasingly certain that Iran launched the oil attack.

Would this ensure a longer and more dangerous escalation? Not necessarily.

Iran’s role could become an “open secret”: known to all but unacknowledged by many governments, including Iran itself. Open secrets are common in international politics because they can allow leaders to maintain a fragile but useful status quo. For instance, Israel’s nuclear weapons have been widely known but unacknowledged for decades; that enables other leaders to avoid confronting the issue.

If Saudi Arabia and Iran both avoid acknowledging Iran’s role, they would be reassuring each other that neither wants to escalate. They would also reduce the stakes in terms of domestic politics and regional reputation.

Yes, back-and-forth military reprisals could get out of control. But as Michael Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders pointed out during this summer’s crisis over Iranian attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, despite the risks, powerful factors are pressuring the institutions, nations and leaders to remain restrained.

Austin Carson (@CarsonAust) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of “Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics” (Princeton University Press 2018), which was recently awarded the Lepgold Book Prize for best book in international relations in 2018.