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The smoke billowing in Saudi Arabia from an attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility was a global security nightmare come true. Oil prices surged as Saudi oil output was cut in half. The United States immediately blamed Iran for an attack claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But the story behind the headlines is how the Middle East’s map of violence is being transformed, because this unprecedented strike is only the latest escalatory salvo in an expanding regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies, and Iran and its proxy forces.
The conflict has simmered for years. But the primary catalyst bringing it toward a full boil? President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, and the imposition of a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran. The Islamic Republic has bitten back.
The U.S.-Iran standoff, once limited to Iranian small boats harassing U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, or pinprick Israeli airstrikes against the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, has now enveloped the region. Conflict cartographers are struggling to keep up as the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates aim to limit the reach and influence of Iran and its mostly-Shiite militia allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
For an expanded itemization of the incidents on the map, click on the full version.
As headlines made clear, the smoke billowing in Saudi Arabia – from an attack Saturday on the world’s largest oil processing facility – was a global security nightmare come true.
Oil prices surged as Saudi oil output was cut in half amid the flames. The United States immediately blamed Iran for an attack claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But the story behind the headlines is how the Middle East’s map of violence is being transformed, because this unprecedented strike is only the latest escalatory salvo in an expanding regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies on one side, and on the other Iran and its proxy forces.
The conflict has simmered for years. But the primary catalyst bringing it toward a full boil? President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, and the imposition of a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran, that have led the Islamic Republic to bite back.
The U.S.-Iran standoff, once limited to Iranian small boats harassing U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, or pinprick Israeli airstrikes against the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, has now enveloped the region.
Conflict cartographers are struggling to keep up as the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates aim to limit the reach and influence of Iran and its mostly-Shiite militia allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Geographically, the battle lines now stretch from the Strait of Gibraltar, in the west, through Israel and Syria, to Yemen, Iran, and the Persian Gulf in the east.
Every actor has also expanded its target range. Israel, for example, is striking Iran-backed militias in Iraq – and reportedly the Iranian missile shipments to Syria and Hezbollah they are facilitating – in what are the first Israeli attacks in Iraq since taking out Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
Likewise, Houthi rebels in Yemen now use ever-more sophisticated drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia – their increasing accuracy and range a result of Iranian support – in retaliation for four years of devastating Saudi airstrikes that have helped make Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
All the while, high-value targets, which once might have been deemed off-limits for fear that they would start an all-out war, are increasingly common.
Iran in June shot down a $130 million U.S. intelligence drone, for example. Of more than 200 strikes in Syria, Israel has launched one wave of attacks that it claimed wiped out 80% of Iran’s military infrastructure there. Oil tankers are seized by both sides. And now critical Saudi Arabian oil facilities have been set ablaze.
The one constant? Escalations of such magnitude that they are broadening the map.
Partial list of clashes
1. May 8, 2018: President Donald Trump unilaterally withdraws U.S. from landmark Iran nuclear deal and imposes crippling sanctions as part of “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
2. May 9: Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis fire two missiles at economic targets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
3. May 10: After accusing Iran of firing 20 rockets from Syria toward the Golan Heights, Israel strikes dozens of Iranian targets in Syria, including, it says, intelligence sites and weapons depots.
4. June 18: Israel strikes Shiite militia fighters on Iraq-Syria border (Abu Kamal/Al Qaim), reportedly killing 52.
5. June 24: Saudi Arabia intercepts two missiles fired at Riyadh.
6. June 26: Israel hits Hezbollah arms depot, south of Damascus.
7. July 22: Israel strikes Iranian-Syrian base near Masyaf, in Hama province.
8. July 25: Houthis attack Saudi oil tanker in Red Sea.
9. Aug. 2: Saudi-led coalition hits a fish market in port city of Al Hudaydah, Yemen, killing at least 30 people.
10. Aug. 8: Houthis fire missiles at southern Saudi city of Jizan, killing one.
11. Aug. 9: Saudi-led coalition killed some 51 in Dahyan market, northern Saada province, including a bus with school children.
12. Sept. 4: Israeli jets strike Iranian/Syrian targets near Baniyas and Wadi al-Ayun nearby.
13. Sept. 16: Israeli missiles strike Iranian-Hezbollah weapons depot south of Damascus, which reportedly received fresh weapons.
14. Jan. 12, 2019: Israel strikes missile depots of Hezbollah at al-Kiswah and near Damascus airport.
15. Feb. 17: Houthis conduct major cross-border offensive; 9 Saudi soldiers killed.
16. March 26: Saudi coalition airstrike kills seven at hospital, 60 miles from Sada, Yemen.
17. March 27: Israeli airstrike on weapons depot northeast of Aleppo kills Iranian and six Iraqi fighters.
18. April 7: Saudi coalition airstrike in Sanaa kills at least 13, including seven children.
19. May 13: Four oil vessels – two Saudi, one Emirati, one Norwegian – damaged by explosives or struck at mouth of Persian Gulf.
20. May 14: Houthis claim strike on two Saudi oil pumping stations, 200 miles west of Riyadh.
21. June 3: Israel attacks Tiyas airbase near Homs, Syria, targeting Iran-supplied weapons cache.
22. June 12: Houthi drone strikes Abha airport, Saudi Arabia.
23. June 13: Two tankers in Gulf of Oman struck by explosions; Iran blamed.
24. June 17: Israel strikes town south of Abu Kamal, Syria, near Iraqi border, reportedly killing 20 fighters of Iran-backed Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah.
25. June 19: Houthis target electricity plant near Ash Shuqayq, Saudi Arabia.
26. June 20: Iran shoots down $130m. U.S. intelligence drone over Persian Gulf.
27. June 20: Trump launches and then calls off in last 10 minutes a retaliatory strike against Iranian radar and missile units.
28. June 20: U.S. launches cyberattack against IRGC missile-control systems.
29. July 1: Israel strikes multiple targets near Damascus and Homs, killing 16.
30. July 4: British forces detain Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, accusing it of taking oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
31. July 18: Iran seizes foreign-flagged oil tanker off Strait of Hormuz.
32. July 18: U.S. shoots down Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz.
33. July 19: Iran seizes British-flagged oil tanker in Persian Gulf.
34. July 19: Israel strikes Iran-backed Shiite militia base of Amerli northeast of Baghdad, reportedly striking guided missiles bound for Syria.
35. July 24: Israel strikes Iran and pro-Iran militia positions in Syrian provinces of Dara and Quneitra, reportedly killing six Iranians, three pro-regime fighters.
36. July 28: Israel strikes Camp Ashraf, in Iraq’s Diyala province, reportedly targeting ballistic missile shipment, Iranian advisers.
37. July 29: Saudi airstrikes on market kill more than 13 civilians in northern Sadah province, Yemen.
38. Aug. 12: Israel strikes Saqr military base in Baghdad.
39. Aug. 20: Israel strikes Iranian-backed Iraqi militias at Balad Airbase, north of Baghdad, reportedly used by Iran to move weapons to Syria.
40. Aug. 25: Houthis fire 10 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport, Saudi Arabia, killing and wounding dozens.
41. Aug. 25: Israel launches airstrikes against what it called an Iranian “killer drone” attack about to be launched from a base near Damascus.
42. Aug. 25: Israeli drone attack in Beirut, target reportedly is key Iranian-made equipment for Hezbollah missile guidance systems.
43. Sept. 1: Saudi airstrikes kill at least 60 in Dhamar, Yemen, at a university used by Houthis as a detention center.
44. Sept. 9: Israel blames Iran-backed Shiite units for “several launches” from Syria that failed to cross into Israel. UAV’s strike Iran-backed militias near Abu Kamal on Syria-Iraq border, killing 18.
45. Sept. 10: Reported Israeli UAV attack on Iran-backed militia arms depot in western Anbar province, Iraq. In subsequent explosions, 21 killed.
46. Sept. 14: World’s largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq and Khurais, in Saudi Arabia, is extensively damaged by 17 impacts from drones and cruise missiles. Houthis claim responsibility. U.S. blames Iran. Saudis eventually allege Iranian involvement.
47. Sept. 17: Israel blamed for attack on Iran-backed Iraqi militia near Abu Kamal-Al Qaim. Fatalities reported.
48. Week of Sept. 16-19: President Trump blames Iran for strike on Saudi facility; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls it an “act of war,” and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif vows “all-out war” if attacked.