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  • Determined to avoid becoming further embroiled in the Middle East, the United States will push Saudi Arabia to take the lead in any potential military strike on Iran.
  • But if Riyadh chooses to stage such an attack, it will have to contend with the consequences that the more credible its actions, the more significant Iran's retaliation could be.
  • Ultimately, Saudi Arabia has the means to strike back, but it will find it difficult to insulate itself from subsequent Iranian counterstrikes.
  • Accordingly, Riyadh will seek as much U.S. assistance and backing as possible before it proceeds.

Two weeks after a devastating attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, one major question remains up in the air: What are the United States and Saudi Arabia going to do in response? Both are attempting to make a compelling case that Iran was directly culpable for the attacks. With proof of Iran's guilt, they can further isolate Tehran diplomatically, potentially paving the way for an aggressive response.

Saudi Arabia is caught between a rock and a hard place, however. If it does nothing, Iran will likely continue its aggression against the major U.S. partner in a bid to force the United States to ease its sanctions — after all, Riyadh can hardly attempt to de-escalate tensions with Tehran given that the latter's main target is the U.S. measures that the kingdom has little control over. But if Saudi Arabia strikes back at Iran to reestablish its deterrence, it would risk Iranian retaliation and put its vital energy infrastructure at serious risk of damage. With the pressure growing to make a move, Saudi Arabia might soon feel the need to take the plunge and inflict some sort of retribution on Iran.

The Calculations

The United States is deeply concerned about embroiling itself in another Middle Eastern conflict as it seeks to pivot its attention and resources to the great power competition with Russia and China. Accordingly, if one of Iran's opponents is going to initiate a military response to the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, the Saudis themselves are likely to spearhead the operation. Indeed, when U.S. military advisers briefed U.S. President Donald Trump about the various options for an aggressive response, he insisted that Saudi Arabia would have to contribute to any retaliatory strike, CBS News reported.

Naturally, Saudi Arabia is hardly pleased at the prospect of finding itself — regardless of whether or not it strikes back at Iran — in a deeper conflict with Iran that would expose its energy export infrastructure to further crippling attacks. Saudi Arabia could calculate that retaliation in the form of greater economic pressure in coordination with its allies could be sufficient. Alternatively, it could seek to conduct an unconventional response, such as sabotage or a cyberattack (again in conjunction with the United States), as a counterstrike. Such action, however, is unlikely to succeed in dissuading Iran; in fact, it may even embolden it. In the end, Iran is lashing out in the first place because of the tremendous economic pressure it is facing. Given that, there is a growing possibility that Saudi Arabia could calculate that a military response is its only viable way forward — potentially devastating ramifications notwithstanding.

The Potential Targets

Of course, the Saudi government has no intention of starting a full-blown conflict with Iran, so it will have to walk a tight line between striking back in an impactful enough manner while minimizing the risk of escalation as much as possible. If the Saudi armed forces do decide to launch a retaliatory attack, they would have three general options. The first is to stage a directly proportional response to Iran's oil facility attack. In this scenario, Riyadh would target a key Iranian energy facility, likely the oil storage and processing facility on Kharg Island. The advantage of this one-off strike is that it could lower the risk of incurring human casualties while simultaneously hurting Tehran enough to prove effective. 

The second option is for Saudi Arabia to strike directly at the base from which Iran launched the missiles and drones against Abqaiq and Khurais. According to U.S. intelligence, the Iranians launched their attack on Abqaiq from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ahvaz air base, which is close to the Iraqi border in southwestern Iran. Launching a strike against the facility would both send a powerful message and remain an entirely proportional response to the initial Iranian attack. The risk in this option, however, is that it is only marginally less inflammatory than a Saudi attack on Iranian energy facilities.

There is also a less provocative — but likely less effective — option open to the Saudis: hitting some of Iran's proxy forces in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere. While this attack might disrupt the operations of pro-Iran forces, such strikes would hardly deter Iran from future attacks, especially considering that the Saudis are already heavily involved in attacking at least one Iranian proxy, Yemen's Houthi rebels

The Means

In terms of the Saudi ability to conduct such attacks, the primary and most effective means at Riyadh's disposal is its air force. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in its air force over the years, acquiring large numbers of sophisticated and modern warplanes from the United States and Europe. To minimize the risk to their aircraft, the Saudis would likely seek to conduct any strikes on Iran with air-launched cruise missiles such as the Storm Shadows from their Tornado fighters. The Storm Shadows have a range in excess of 1,000 kilometers (625 miles), meaning the Saudi air force could launch them from well beyond the reach of Iranian air defenses. 

Saudi Arabia's ability to attack notwithstanding, it will always remain highly vulnerable to Iranian counterstrikes, meaning it will only do so if it feels confident enough in U.S. assistance. As a result, the kingdom will seek U.S. reinforcements like additional air defenses, as well as intelligence that both better tracks incoming threats and, potentially, provides tactical information for a Saudi strike. And as a last resort, Riyadh would also ask for a guarantee that Washington would step in if the kingdom's retaliatory strike ignites a hotter conflagration in the Middle East. In such a situation, the United States would find itself back fighting fires in the Middle East, just as it's trying to pass such duties off to others.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.