Why is everyone so surprised about Iran’s surprise drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil production? Everything about the drone war with Iran has been completely predictable, yet the U.S. and its allies are still unprepared for each Iranian move. Anyone who has read anything about Middle East politics should have known that Iran would threaten the Persian Gulf oil supply the moment President Trump tore up the Agreed Framework on Iran’s nuclear program. Anyone should have known that Iran would attack using “plausibly deniable” methods—drones shot at Saudi oil facilities, drone assassinations of Yemeni generals and attack drones provided to proxies in Yemen. Anyone should have known that a policy that threatens Iran’s economy but steers clear of military action, will just encourage Iran to keep stepping up its attacks until it achieves its goals. Anyone should have known the current policy gives Iran a “free punch” and, unsurprisingly, Iran chose oil for its punches because it’s yet another free punch for them.
As the West learned during the Tanker Wars in the 1980s, it can’t act against Iranian oil because too many allies rely on Iran’s production. Iran, however, can act with impunity against the other Gulf oil producers because they won’t attack Iran without American backing. Every gallon of Saudi production lost is a potential gain for Iranian oil.
It is no surprise that the Iranians chose drones for their attack on Saudi’s Abqaiq oil facilities. Drones are accurate, plausibly deniable weapons. The press is making a big deal about Iranian cruise missiles that could have hit Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facilities from Iran, but the cruise missiles didn’t do the most damage. The Iranians only targeted easily-repaired oil storage tanks with cruise missiles. It was the short-ranged Qasef, Samed 3 and delta wing drones that did the most damage. They hit the expensive “cracking towers” that turn crude oil into gasoline and other products—and can take months to repair. The Qasef is basically a loitering mortar shell with a very short range. The Samed 3 would barely have enough range to strike from Iran and the unnamed delta wing drone appears to be another short-ranged vehicle. All of these were probably launched from Saudi territory, possibly inside the range of Saudi air defenses.
DigitalGlobe imagery after the strike reinforces the contention that Iran used a mix of long-range cruise missiles and short-range drones. The image on page 12 shows a classic cruise missile attack against oil storage tanks—all the holes are in about the same location on each tank and each missile was on the same heading when it struck. The holes also indicate that the missiles were diving from a greater altitude when they hit, signaling that they were executing a terminal maneuver to ensure they avoided vertical obstructions (fences, towers, building). Hence, the missiles probably flew a pre-programed route without human intervention after launch.
The damage to the cracking towers indicates that the Iranians used small drones flying a completely different attack profile from the cruise missiles. The damage suggests that remote pilots flew the drones into the towers because the drones hit at the correct point in three dimensions and impacted horizontally. Horizontal impact signals that a remote pilot was in control because, as noted, the drones had to dodge vertical obstructions along the attack route to hit their targets horizontally.