Iran did not wait for the first American “nice and new and smart” missile to fly into Syria, before responding. Largely unnoticed due to the clamorous distractions of the saber-rattling and colorful repartee traded between President Donald Trump and Moscow, Tehran ratcheted up tensions with Saudi Arabia and the oil nations of the Gulf to convey a message: Iran was committed to responding to any attack on Syria, whether by the US or Israel, but not necessarily in the Syrian arena. Israel had already been warned. But Tehran might also transpose the Syrian conflict to the Gulf and Red Sea regions with disruptive assaults on oil installations and export routes. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were singled out for special treatment
On April 3, the Saudi Abqaiq oil tanker came under missile fire on a regular Red Sea shipping lane west of Hudaidah. It was carrying two million barrels of crude to Egypt’s Ain Sukhna. The ship dropped anchor in the Red Sea. US, Saudi and Europe vessels in the neighborhood rushed at once to its aid but were unable to locate the source of the attack. The incident occurred not far from the Straits of Mandeb which is routinely patrolled by the American navy.
Soon after this, the Yemeni Houthi insurgents claimed to have targeted “a warship in response to an air strike that killed civilians.” The White House condemned the Houthis for attacking the Saudi oil tanker. Saudi oil industry sources said that the industry and shipments “were proceeding as normal” with the usual security measures in place.
Bu then, on Wednesday, April 11, the Houthis claimed to have launched its new Qasef-1 drone against an Aramco oil facility in the southern Saudi Arabian province of Jazan, without specifying when it took place or disclosing the damage. The company responded that its plants were operating “normally and safely.” The Houthis’ Al-Masira TV also claimed a second Houthi attack, this one by another Qasef-1 on Abha airport in the neighboring Saudi Asir province.
Saudi official accounts of these incidents bore little resemblance to the Houthi version: Saudi air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile over Riyadh (not mentioned in the Houthi claim) – was one. The Saudi communique went on to report that “another scout drone targeted the border city of Jazan and was also stopped.” Spokesman for the Arab Coalition forces fighting in Yemen, Col. Turki al–Maliki, said that at 7:40 am local time, air defense systems were able to detect an unidentified object in the direction of Abha International Airport and “dealt with it accordingly.” He added: “Examination of the debris revealed a hostile Houthi aircraft with Iranian markings.”
These incidents occurred as Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, having wound up his almost month-long American tour, including White House talks with President Trump, was heading for home with a stopover in Paris. As defense minister, he lost no time in placing the Saudi armed forces on a state of preparedness, a couple of days after Israel took this step.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that, since the attack on the Saudi vessel, oil tankers travelling from the Gulf through the Red Sea and Suez Canal are escorted by warships of the US, Saudi, Egyptian and some European navies. Iran’s wide-ranging menace virtually rules out any plans for the transfer of naval and air units from the Gulf as back-up for the US Syrian operation. Those units will be needed more than ever to stay where they are.