Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Iran has gotten really sloppy at proxy warfare. If the thinly-disguised attack on the Saudi Aramco oil terminals can be proven to have been directed by Iran, the cynical men in Tehran who run things may find themselves internationally condemned in the United Nations and the court of world opinion.  

It is obvious that the Yemeni Houthis who claim responsibility for the attack are supplied by Iran. That is well known, and virtually every non-state actor in the region has a large power state sponsor; but if the Aramco attack can be directly attributed by hard evidence to Tehran, it represents a direct kinetic attack by one state on another. That is a justifiable act of war, and it put the United States in an interesting position.

President Trump has hoped that his pressure on Iran would result in reopened negotiations on nuclear issues and to reduce the kind of regional bad behavior characterized by the Aramco strike. There was some speculation that Mr. Trump and Iranian President Rouhani would meet at next week’s U.N. session, which will be attended by most major world leaders. If Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Rouhani now, he will be subjected to the same kind of criticism that he would have received had he met with Taliban leaders in the wake of an attack in Afghanistan that killed an American soldier.

So far, Mr. Trump’s patient approach of carrots and sticks has been consistent with his overall strategic approach to the region. The Trump administration has been the first to recognize the reality that Middle Eastern oil is no longer a vital American interest. The Aramco attack will cause a momentary uptick in the price at U.S. gas pumps, but the international market will eventually compensate for it. The Iranians know that our allies in Europe and Asia need Saudi oil more than we do, and Tehran obviously hopes that a combination of Asian and Western pressure will force Washington into a more conciliatory response. Mr. Trump’s reaction to date seems to have negated that hope.

The Trump administration has three options at this point. The first is an American kinetic attack on the facilities that Iran used to launch the Aramco strike. Such an attack would be proportionate, but it has drawbacks that argue against it. First, it will offset any administration attempt to muster world opinion against Iran. Second, and more importantly, it will likely help to unify the Iranian public at a time when Mr. Trump is trying to drive a wedge between Iran’s leaders and its people on the economic front.

A second option would be to assist the Saudi regime in putting together a strike package capable of launching a retaliatory strike on Iranian oil facilities. The Saudis probably don’t have the current capability of managing such an attack; but with American intelligence and electronic support along with specialized weapons, such a strike is feasible. Aside from the obvious danger of escalating the situation into a major regional conflict, such an action would likely have the same effect on Iranian public opinion as a direct strike while likely not causing a major impact on Iranian economy due to its already moribund state.

The best American option — if an irrefutable direct link can be made — would be to ramp up diplomatic pressure and world opinion against the Iranians due to the uncalled-for escalation of regional tensions combined with cyber-attacks on the power grids that control the nation’s water supply. This piece of real economic pressure on Iran’s greatest economic liability would have a very real chance of inciting the Iranian street to pressure its government to cease the costly nuclear experimentation and regional trouble-making that have combined to make Iran a regional basket case while not killing any Iranian citizens.

Mr. Trump’s domestic critics have accused him of outsourcing U.S. strategy in the Mideast to the Saudis and Israelis. The counter-argument is that the president’s approach is consistent with his campaign promise to get allies to do more of the heavy lifting. This is particularly true in regions that are less strategically vital to our interests than in the Cold War.

When it was at its most efficient, the Roman Empire managed its non-vital interests through clients. Those clients were encouraged to manage their regions as they saw fit as long as those interests did not collide with Rome’s. Regional enemies generally knew enough not to press their luck too far lest Rome intervene directly. Not a bad approach.

• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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