An Iranian media report of a pipeline explosion in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on Thursday served as a reminder of the impact that instability in Iran’s neighborhood can have on world oil markets. By extension, the event showed the impact Iranian propaganda efforts can have in deterring a military attack.
The claim that a fire had broken out near a pipeline between Awamiya and Shabwa appears to have emanated from an Eastern Province-based Saudi Shiite Facebook group. The group posted pictures purportedly portraying a blaze near a pipeline. The report was picked up by Iranian media outlet PressTV more than four hours later and spread from there. There was no independent confirmation of a purported attack, and all indications so far point to this being another propaganda move by Iran to shake the markets. It is the latest development in the long-running drama pitting Iran against Israel and the United States, with the central question being whether and when the two sides will go to war. Each actor is actively managing perceptions to serve their interests on the matter, and those perceptions don’t always line up with reality.
The narrative Israel seeks to project is of a country that feels increasingly existentially threatened, one barely able to keep itself from carrying out an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear reactors. This, of course, is the perception Israel has sought to create at varying levels of intensity during much of the past several years. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington this week, ahead of a planned visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to arrive March 5. A leak published Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed that Netanyahu planned to demand in a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that he get on board with an Israeli-approved series of red lines on Iran. Were Tehran to cross them, Netanyahu’s demand allegedly went, the United States would publicly agree to work with Israel on a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Someone from the Netanyahu government likely issued the leak to Haaretz to help solidify the perception that Israel desperately wants to take action against Iran. The reality -- as U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey pointed out in late February -- is that the Israeli military lacks the capability to conduct a successful operation on its own. Israel could always launch the first strike, but it would be betting that the United States would come to its defense and finish the job, especially if Iran resorted to mining the Strait of Hormuz. Seeing how Israel cannot afford to lose American support, this is a big bet. Israel cannot miscalculate on this assumption, and this significantly constrains its ability to act.
The United States
The United States has little appetite for a war with Iran right now, for a variety of reasons. For one, the specter of a conflict in the Persian Gulf sending crude prices skyrocketing is unappealing, especially as Obama campaigns for re-election. Washington, however, also has a strategic interest in stemming the spread of Iranian power. It will therefore keep its military options on the table, while remaining open to the prospect of negotiations with Tehran as a means to keep tensions from escalating.
Washington is seeking to spread the perception that a war with Iran right now is simply not worth the cost. Its publicly stated intelligence assessments do not put Tehran close to obtaining a deliverable nuclear device with which it can threaten its neighbors, sapping the sense of urgency for any action. The United States has recently sought to dampen public support for military action by creating the expectation that such a move would increase the risk for Iranian retaliation elsewhere on the globe. The day after Haaretz published the report on Netanyahu’s planned ultimatum to Obama, a report in The New York Times -- a publication known to be a favored target for leaks from the current administration -- stated that participating in a strike on Iran would generate retaliatory actions abroad that would likely target U.S. citizens.
More than anything, however, Washington is wary of the war's impact on the price of oil. That edginess plays directly into Iran’s hands when considering the perception Tehran wants to create.
Iran shares Washington's primary goal: to popularize the notion that attacking Iran isn’t worth the cost. Iran uses the threat of retaliation as a foreign policy strategy unto itself, articulated by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and clarified in recent comments made by IRGC Commander Mohammed Ali Aziz Jaafari. Jaafari told state media that Iran had “entered a new phase and now it is our threats which are affecting the enemy.”
Iran’s biggest leverage to deter an attack is its ability to impact the price of oil on global markets. Its most obvious card is the Strait of Hormuz. Merely threatening to mine the Strait has in the past been enough to dominate world headlines. Iran is extremely reluctant to use this card, of course, because once played, it cannot be played again -- it is Iran's so-called “nuclear option.”
Iran of course can do more than issue threats. Its formidable land army can project power beyond its borders; it has covert capabilities in eastern Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and -- though proven rather ineffective in recent instances -- in Asia as well. But its main deterrent is Tehran's ability to impact the price of oil in its own backyard, something that Thursday’s incident in Saudi Arabia proved effectively.