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Sophistication Of Saudi Airstrike Points To Iranian Involvement


Who attacked a major oil facility in Saudi Arabia over the weekend? Well, the U.S. has pointed to Iran. Officials have released satellite images showing over a dozen impacts from missiles or drones and the damage caused. We're going to hear more about what that means to the oil industry in a moment. But first, let's pick apart what's known about the attack itself.

We're joined by NPR's Geoff Brumfiel in the studio. Welcome.


CORNISH: Let's start with what was hit. What exactly is this facility? What do we know about what it does?

BRUMFIEL: This facility is known as Abqaiq, and it really is the linchpin of the Saudi oil production sort of process. It does a lot of things. It's a massive, sprawling site, but one of the really big things is it separates the oil from explosive gases - flammable gases that come up out of the ground with it. It's been targeted before. In 2006, suicide bombers tried to strike the site, and they failed.

CORNISH: Now, Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack. Given what's known about this rebel group, could they have done this?

BRUMFIEL: Right. This is a rebel group in Yemen that's been at war with the Saudi coalition for years. And we've reported that they have used technology in the past to attack sites in Saudi Arabia - specifically, they've used some pretty primitive drones with a propeller at the back and an explosive at the front and a GPS to guide it. They've been able to hit airports and some other sites inside Saudi Arabia. But there's reason to believe the Houthis may not have been behind this latest attack.

There's a couple of things to keep in mind. First is just the distance. Abqaiq - it's a long way from Yemen. And it seems unlikely that a lot of the Houthi weapons we know about couldn't go that far.

Second is just the sophistication of the attack. At least 17 missiles and drones appear to have been used, and it looks like they were targeting very specific things, like tanks to hold flammable gas and these separation towers. They're the most valuable part of this very large facility. All this implies a level of sophistication we haven't seen before from the Houthis.

CORNISH: So what does that mean? Where else could this technology have come from?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's a couple of options. One is that there could have been some sort of launch from Iraq. There are Iranian proxy groups working in Iraq. It should be noted that Iraqi officials categorically deny this, and the U.S. has not, you know, sort of contradicted them. Another possibility is boats out in the Persian Gulf.

But the U.S. has a lot of sensors over the Gulf right now. It seems unlikely that such a large attack could have come from there, which leaves Iran itself. And at this point, we should say that Iran says any implication it's involved at all is maximum lies.

CORNISH: Meantime, if you look back at Iran's past, would this be a departure from other actions that they have taken?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, this is way bigger than the sorts of things that they've done in the past. I spoke to Ariane Tabatabai at the RAND Corporation, and here's what she had to say.

ARIANE TABATABAI: If it is traced back to Iran and if the attack was indeed launched from Iranian territory, then I think this is a big deal.

BRUMFIEL: Tabatabai says, you know, usually, Iran does much smaller attacks. It works through proxies. But in this case, given the scale, even if it were a proxy, she thinks Iran would've had to have been involved. The highest levels of the Iranian government would've had to have sign off.

CORNISH: What I'm hearing from you, Geoff, is that there's a lot of evidence that's pointing back to Iran, and that means either in the form of proxies or the nation itself. And people around the world are looking at this as provocative. So the experts you spoke to - are they sure that Iran is involved?

BRUMFIEL: That's a really good question. You know, I mean, there's no smoking gun. We all remember the Gulf War and the runup to that. We just don't have sort of solid evidence, but it's hard to see how Iran couldn't have played some sort of role in this attack.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Geoff, thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.