As the president considers how the United States should respond to a series of aggressive acts by Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, one fact should be clear: There are no good options.
Inaction is unacceptable. A passive posture would invite more aggression, and the pattern of escalating Iranian provocations suggests the Islamic Republic could miscalibrate its attacks in a way that would require a broad and conclusive response from the West. But even a measured military response to Iranian attacks entails risk. While neither the Western world nor Iran and its roguish allies want to see a full-scale military confrontation, the mechanisms for de-escalating such a conflict once the shooting starts are untested and unreliable. Iran would retaliate, potentially against American military and diplomatic targets, compelling the United States to respond in kind. That’s how cycles of violence spiral out of control. The choice before President Trump is an unenviable one, but this is the job he wanted.
Although the menu of options before the president consists entirely of unpalatable selections, there is one that is worse than the others. Via NBC News:
[A response] could entail a strike by Saudi Arabia, whose oil facilities were hit Sunday in an unprecedented attack, that the U.S. would support with intelligence, targeting information and surveillance capabilities — but without the U.S. actually firing any weapons at Iran, one person familiar with the planning said.
This approach preserves the patina of American non-involvement, which is valuable to those who insist that the United States should withdraw from its myriad global commitments. But protest as they might (the American president was once among those who insist that we should let the Saudis “fight their own wars), the United States will continue to protect its investment in the post-Cold War order, the free navigation of the seas, and the stability of the global economy. And allowing the Saudis to conduct a retaliatory strike on Iranian targets would only compound the threat Iranian aggression poses to U.S. interests.
A direct strike on Iranian targets by Saudi forces would signal a new phase in what has been a decade-long covert conflict between Tehran and Riyadh. Though the United States and its allies would provide logistical support to the Kingdom, a direct attack on Iran by a peer competitor in its region would tempt Iran to respond proportionately and directly. By contrast, a U.S.-led strike on Iranian targets removes that temptation; America’s prohibitive military dominance ensures that Iran would view such an engagement as an asymmetrical fight from the start, and it would prosecute such a conflict accordingly.
Further, a strike on Iran by the region’s dominant Sunni power plays into Tehran’s preferred narrative. To hear Iranian officials tell it, much of Iran’s internal tensions are the result of efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to aggravate tensions within its minority Sunni community. To be fair, this is a game that is played by the region’s Sunni powers, too, including Saudi Arabia. That’s all the more reason to avoid legitimizing such a simplistic storyline. It’s one that would surely be validated in a major regional conflict between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic in part because of the targets that would be in Saudi crosshairs.
The principle of reciprocity would logically limit Saudi strikes to the targets responsible for the attack on the Aramco plant in Abqaiq. A tailored response that would be seen as proportionate and, therefore, not worth risking a broader conflict over would be limited to the bases and infrastructure north of the Arabian Peninsula from which the cruise missiles and drones that struck the Saudi refinery over the weekend originated. But Riyadh’s options are not—and, perhaps, should not—be so limited.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds Force soldiers and brass are spread out across the Middle East, and their locations are reportedly known to American officials. Regular Iranian military outposts are in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, too. Hitting these locations outside Iranian borders would rob Tehran of the claim that its territorial sovereignty was violated, but such an operation would also validate the claim that the Saudis are executing a region-wide strike on the sources of Shiite political authority. That claim could fast become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These pitfalls are not unknown to American military planners, and the risk these scenarios present arguably outweigh the rewards. In the end, a mission designed to reestablish deterrence and restore balance to the relationship between the Middle East’s two competing regional hegemons could have the precise opposite effect. If such an option is being seriously considered by the president, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there will be no U.S.-led military response, much less a U.S.-supported military response from one or more of its allies. And that could be disastrous.
Iran’s aggressive behavior follows a clear pattern of escalation. It has executed sophisticated covert operations targeting the global oil supply by disabling and hijacking ships in the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. It has destroyed a $120 million American aerial surveillance drone operating above international waters. And now, it has executed an elaborate assault on a Saudi refinery. Iran is behaving rationally by testing the limits of provocation as a tool of statecraft. Its strategic objective is to stoke anxieties among America’s Middle Eastern and European allies and, ultimately, erode global will to maintain the present suffocating sanctions regime. Eventually, Iran is likely to miscalculate, executing a bloody attack that demands a disproportionate response from the United States. This is an outcome that American policymakers are right to avoid, but not at any cost.
It would be a shame to see Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran derailed by a limited retaliatory strike on Iranian targets, but the alternatives are intolerable. Unfortunately, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to see it that way.