A single drone missile can wreak as much havoc on the oil markets as a world war at this point. If one already obvious point was hit home on September 14th, it was this: Oil facilities the world over are gaping giants of vulnerability.
The Saudi’s couldn’t protect their oil even with U.S. military support because it’s too vast an operation, and defense is designed without 21st Century, high-tech attacks launched by unclear actors in mind.
But the Saudi attack wasn’t designed for destruction. It was a message of vulnerability.
And everyone’s got drones–not just state militaries. A drone is part of the inventory list of half a dozen militant groups from Yemen’s Houthis to Shi’ite Hezbollah and ISIS.
All they need are coordinates, which are not that hard to come by in this digital age, or even with a little help on the inside.
Saudi oil may be the biggest, but right now, it’s not the most vulnerable.
The most vulnerable oil in the world is in Iraq.
So, imagine a country where a multitude of rival players and mini proxy wars are taking place, and everyone has access to drones.
An attack on Iraqi oil installations would not go down like it did in Saudi Arabia, with zero geopolitical repercussions. Oil prices took a one-day surge shock of around 20 percent and then the Saudis bustled to get things back online at full capacity, and it was done and dusted. Like it never happened.
That’s not how it would happen in Iraq.
The Threat From Tahrir Square
It’s easy enough to dismiss protests in Iraq as non-news. That would be a mistake. Mass protests are very different from one-off violent surges in isolated locations.
This is an uprising, and many Iraqis view this as the first chance for regime change that isn’t coming from an external player or in the form of a military coup.
What the protesters are demanding is a country not manipulated by Iran, and a government that provides the actual services that should be available in an oil-rich nation.
Protesters have taken over Tahrir Square in central Baghdad and turned it into their own little well-functioning fiefdom by many accounts–complete with basic services that the government fails to provide.
The state’s response has been a brutal crackdown that has left over 320 people dead and some 15,000 injured since October 1st.
Iraq is a nation of multiple ‘defense’ forces, so at this point no one is entirely sure who is killing protesters, or who caused the sudden eruption of violence. The violence–reminiscent of al-Sisi’s Egypt–actually inflamed protests that probably would have gone nowhere otherwise.
When a country of mixed defense forces turns violent, the level of vulnerability is exponentially higher. Not only does Iraq have the Iraqi Army, it’s also got the Counter Terrorism Service (U.S. aligned and controlled by the Prime Minister), the Popular Mobilization Forces (mostly, but not exclusively Shi’ite and pro-Iranian, also controlled by the PM) and the Kurdish Peshmerga–not to mention police and security forces that report to the Interior Ministry.
Right now, Iraq’s political order is dominated by Shi’ites, and Iran has been cultivating those in power for some time. Tehran would very much like to keep them in power and maintain the fragile balance. That’s exactly what the protesters don’t want. Iran has already intervened to keep PM Mahdi in power–at least until next year when new elections can be held after Iran has had time to formulate a better strategy for maintaining its grip on power in Iraq.
It is by no means as simple as Shi’ite versus Sunni.
One of the key Shi’ite influencers is Moqtada al-Sadr, who has tried to have the PM ousted and who is a staunch nationalist hoping to make a power play now that the public is presumably fed up with Iranian influence. Al-Sadr is no friend to the Iranians.
What’s happened now is that Iran has overplayed its hand in Iraq: Its proxies aren’t providing for the people.
What About Basra?
Basra is home to the bulk of Iraq’s oil riches, and protests here were not violent–not until last week. And more than Baghdad, this is a harbinger of things to come.
Last week, security forces shot dead five people during a sit-in in Basra.
Protesters also blocked the entrance to the port of Umm Qasr and forced operations to halt for a week.
It’s not an oil port, but when things get this bad in Basra, it’s oil that’s on everyone’s mind.
Basra is a stronghold of nationalist Moqtada al-Sadr in his latest reinvention as he stands against both Iranian and American influence–a notion that will very likely gain him increasingly wider support in the current atmosphere.
Now, Basra’s oil workers have joined the protests, and protesters appear ready to take this to the next level–targeting oil facilities. Recent protests prior to this that started in Baghdad have generally failed to gain any threatening traction in Basra–the country’s sacred oil heartland–until now.
The Threat Beyond Protests
Protesters willing to target oil facilities is one thing, but Iraqi oil is vulnerable on another level, too. If Iran thinks it is losing its grip on Iraq, it could easily do to Iraq’s oil industry what it did to Aramco’s by using drone strikes to halt production and gain the upper hand in Iraq without an all-out war.
No one else at this stage in the game would attack Iraqi oil with the intention of causing damage to send a loud geopolitical message about the balance of power and the vulnerability of power to oil.
The Saudis can’t defend Aramco’s oil facilities because they aren’t set up to detect low-flying missiles at 360 degrees of coverage. They cannot even be fully protected by the U.S. Patriot Missile system, which covers threats in a 120-degree sector.
The fact that the Saudi air defense systems failed to detect this massive launch is now being eyed by Russia as a major potential payday. Russia’s defense system is believed to more advanced, covering a 360-degree sector. Vladimir Putin publicly offered to sell the system to Saudis–the same one he sold to Iran.
If the Saudis can’t protect their vast oil empire, Iraq–with its disjointed defense forces and even wider array of security forces with varying agendas–certainly can’t.
If Iran decides it’s losing its grip on power in Baghdad, a drone in Basra could very easily do the talking, and it would be much harder to bounce back in the event of an attack because of the multitude of oil companies that would have to come together to fund repairs.
This makes Iraqi oil the most vulnerable in the world.