You can’t say we weren’t warned. We were warned when Iran was directly implicated in the sophisticated attack on four ships in the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, including two Saudi-flagged oil tankers, that it was only the beginning. We were warned when the next tanker Iran seized was a British-flagged oil tanker that Tehran’s boldness wouldn’t end there. We were warned when the Trump administration failed to retaliate against Iran for destroying an American surveillance drone—a failure that would give the regime license to be even more reckless.
Well, here we are.
Administration officials contend that Saturday’s precision strike on 17 targets at the Aramco plant in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia involving “nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones” originated from inside Iran. Others contend that the attack was mounted from Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthi militia has executed a variety of similar attacks on Saudi military and civilian sites. Some have even claimed that Iraq-based Shiite militia groups were responsible for the attack. Only those who are entirely unfamiliar with Iran’s practice of arming and directing its regional proxies to execute acts of terroristic violence could see the difference in these distinctions. Whether the source of this attack on Saudi sovereignty, global oil supply, and international economic stability was executed by Iranian regulars or the guerilla groups it funds and protects, the rule still applies. This is an escalation that follows a pattern. The next escalation will be worse.
The relevant question is, as ever, what course of action should the Western world take in response? Prior to this weekend’s attacks, President Donald Trump and his administration’s officials had indicated that they would be open to direct diplomatic engagement with their Iranian counterparts. But toward what end? Neither the Trump administration nor its Democratic critics seem particularly eager to reengage with Iran on the terms set by the Obama administration.
Among Democrats, orthodoxy holds that the Iranian regime is only acting in such a brazen manner because it is threatened by the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal. Only when America consents to the restoration of those accords will we know the kind of placidity exemplified by the days when Iran was taking U.S. sailors hostage, violating the Geneva accords, and exporting terrorism throughout its region. But when Democratic presidential aspirants are pressed on the subject, they’re far less enthusiastic about the prospect of restoring the status quo ante.
When asked about the deal at a June presidential debate, candidates ranging from Sen. Cory Booker to Amy Klobuchar to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard all refused to commit to the deal Barack Obama’s administration negotiated. It’s a shame that the party’s top-tier candidates were not asked about the Iranian threat, but it’s illuminating that those who were—representatives of the progressive, moderate, and reflexively dovish wings of the Democratic Party—all shared the same dim view of the Iran Deal.
So, if the response to Iranian aggression is not unconditional diplomatic re-engagement, what should it be? The Trump administration remains committed to an admirable and arguably successful effort to use financial and diplomatic tools to destabilize the Iranian regime from within. But that commitment forecloses on retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets. Such a course would provide the regime with the opportunity to rally the public against the United States, shifting the nation’s focus away from the regime’s failures and toward an exogenous threat.
The White House’s reluctance to undermine that strategy and the president’s desire to avoid “disproportionate” loss of life or collateral destruction is commendable but flawed. The Iranian regime is not interested in proportionality. Its interests lie in fomenting conflict in the region, breaking the resolve of America’s European allies to maintain a united front, and ultimately relieving the economic pressure on the regime.
The timing of this latest attack affords the Trump administration an opportunity to turn the tables against the Iranian regime. As the world’s leaders gather in New York City ahead of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the Trump administration should use that platform to make the case against the Iranian regime. It should reveal the intelligence its officials claim to have proving why Iran was behind this act of war. It should expand upon its theory of the case: That Iran’s provocations are part of a deliberate effort to destabilize the region, sow tension within the Western alliance, and divide and conquer. It should compel the civilized nations of the world to deploy naval assets to the region to deter further acts of Iranian piracy, which have not abated even in the wake of the strikes in Abqaiq. And finally, the Trump administration should reserve the right to use incommensurate retaliatory force against Iranian regime targets with or without the support of its allies.
The Trump administration should do all these things, but it won’t. Iran will continue to test its freedom of action until it miscalculates and ignites an international incident that necessitates an immediate military response to reestablish what the Trump administration confessed broke down long ago: deterrence. We can only hope that the damage that will be done and the lives that will be lost in that event will be minimal. But there can be no question that, on the present course, it is coming.