Riverine Command Boats (RCB) 802 and 805 participate in a bi-lateral exercise with Kuwait naval forces in the Arabian Gulf. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Torrey W. Lee.
Iran’s ongoing attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and its escalatory strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq have jolted the US and others to dust off their playbooks toward rogue regimes and engage Iran with a host of military, diplomatic, and economic coercive actions. The proposed measures fall along familiar lines, including:
1. A retaliatory strike to re-establish deterrence through conventional or cyber means.[i]
2. Increased diplomatic engagement to stop Iran’s backlash to the American maximum pressure campaign and decision to terminate the JCPOA.[ii]
3. Additional economic sanctions to force Tehran’s hand regarding its choice to fund military adventurism through Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi’s in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.[iii]
All of these policy options have merit; however, the correct course for US policy needs to be informed by Iran’s intentions. Iran hopes that its coercive military measures can goad the international community to respond in a manner that frontloads concessions and subsequently provides an off-ramp out of the maximum pressure campaign. While the most recent attack against Saudi Arabia can be interpreted as simply an unprecedented and dangerous affront from one country to another, when viewed collectively over the past several months, Iran’s military actions have targeted a far more amorphous norm – the to unrestricted flow of Arab oil out of the Middle East. This norm, which every GCC country and respective international partner adheres to, calls for an unconventional, and perhaps jarring, response to counter Iran’s strategy. Tehran’s cruise missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities should be deemphasized in importance, and the U.S. should work to maintain the status quo.
The rush to engagement is misguided for several reasons. Rewarding Iran’s recent escalatory attacks with greater diplomatic engagement plays directly into Tehran’s strategy of using coercive military means to energize the international community to action. Furthermore, a US retaliatory strike could unintentionally serve Tehran’s ends by creating further impetus for the international community to de-escalate tension. Additional sanctions continue the status quo. The best course of action for the United States is to let Iran’s recent attack fall on deaf ears. A true nightmare scenario for Tehran is one where it must face a maximum pressure campaign with a wholly unsympathetic international audience while pressure from domestic unrest, economic regression, and an overextended military presence continue to build insurmountable odds for a regime that is committed to remaining in power.[iv]
The latter is particularly worrisome to Tehran because sympathy from the international community rooted in nostalgia for the JCPOA is one of the few cards the regime in Tehran can still play before succumbing to Washington’s demands to cease its support for its destabilizing actions across the region or deciding to escalate its attacks on the world’s oil supply even further. EU countries, notably France, have held open the off-ramp for Tehran in two specific ways. The first was President Macon’s call for the EU to create its own financial vehicle to circumnavigate US secondary sanctions.[v] The second is floating a 15 billion dollar credit line to Tehran if it comes back into compliance with the JCPOA.[vi] Again, because of the predominance of the dollar in international finance, this is only viable if the US gives the green light.[vii]
While restraint may seem counterintuitive at first, having Tehran’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities fail to bring about a resolute response from the international community would show the growing impotence of Iran’s strategy of provocation. The effectiveness of this strategy is dependent on European countries taking the initiative to solve a crisis that Iran continues to create and exacerbate through coercive military measures. However, if one was seeking to take solace in the recommendation that doing nothing would avoid a more significant escalation, he or she is going to be sorely disappointed. All of the options at present are escalatory, which means that Iran should be particularly concerned about miscalculation. A heavy US response was not triggered due to the fact, as Walter Russell Mead points out, that Iran did not attack American troops, launch a terror attack on the US homeland, fire on American flagged vessels, cause a significant oil price shock, make significant progress on a nuclear weapon, or invade a country the US is aligned with.[viii]
One counterpoint to this argument is that Iran’s recent attack on Saudi Arabia marked a turning point in their strategy. Instead of trying to goad the international community into action, Iran is instead attempting to split the U.S.-GCC alliance – a major foreign policy goal of Tehran’s for the past forty years.[ix] This is one possible outcome. However, there are several factors that reinforce the conclusion that Iran’s strategy remains to alleviate pressure from economic sanctions through the international community. First, the US GCC alliance is already on life support largely due to factors outside of Iran’s control.[x] Second, the military measures taken by Tehran, from the seizure of the first oil tanker on July 11 to present, have specifically included multinational assets that are not solely GCC specific. More evidence is needed to support the theory that Iran has given up on the international community and is instead attempting to disrupt and already fragile U.S.-GCC relationship.
If Iran is unable to generate
diplomatic attention from the international community through its destructive activities,
then it is left to either cross one of the red lines elucidated above or offer concessions. Since the former would inevitably lead to the
end of the regime in Iran, the latter seems to be the most likely way forward.
The greatest danger lies not in what the U.S. may or may not do in retaliation,
but the misguided belief that doing nothing doesn’t escalate the situation
further. The U.S. should be prepared now for the reality that any action or
inaction, sans capitulation to US demands, will escalate the situation further.
[i] Mark Cancian, “Five Options For A U.S. Military Response To Iran,” Forbes, September 17, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcancian/2019/09/17/five-options-for-a-u-s-attack-on-iran/.
[ii] Thomas A. Shannon Jr. and John B. Bellinger III, “Refusing to Talk With Iran Is a Mistake,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed September 26, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/25/refusing-to-talk-with-iran-is-a-mistake-trump-zarif-unga/.
[iii] David Adesnik, “To Halt Iran’s Aggression, Trump Must Do More to Win Support for Global Sanctions,” FDD, September 25, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/david-adesnik-to-halt-irans-aggression-trump-should-mobilize-global-coalition-to-impose-harsh-sanctions.
[iv] Asa Fitch and Aresu Eqbali, “Iranians Protest Economic Woes as New U.S. Sanctions Loom,” Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2018, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iranians-protest-economic-woes-as-new-u-s-sanctions-loom-1533560897; Benoit Faucon and Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Crushed by U.S. Sanctions, Iran Pins Economic Hopes on Mall Developer,” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2019, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/crushed-by-u-s-sanctions-iran-pins-economic-hopes-on-mall-developer-11562670006; Seth G. Jones, “War by Proxy: Iran’s Growing Footprint in the Middle East,” CSIS, March 11, 2019, https://www.csis.org/war-by-proxy.
[v] “Europe Can’t Keep Coddling Iran,” Bloomberg.Com, February 22, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-22/europe-coddles-iran-with-special-purpose-vehicle.
[vi] John Irish and Parisa Hafezi, “France Pushes $15 Billion Credit Line Plan for Iran, If U.S. Allows It,” Reuters, September 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-usa-france-idUSKCN1VO1AF.
[vii] Erin Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng, “Trump Flirts With $15 Billion Bailout for Iran, Sources Say,” The Daily Beast, September 12, 2019, https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-flirts-with-dollar15-billion-bailout-for-iran-sources-say.
[viii] Thomas A. Shannon Jr. and John B. Bellinger III, “Refusing to Talk With Iran Is a Mistake,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed September 26, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/25/refusing-to-talk-with-iran-is-a-mistake-trump-zarif-unga/.
[ix] Kenneth M. Pollack, “Trump Is Giving Iran More Than It Ever Dreamed Of,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed September 26, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/26/trump-is-giving-iran-more-than-it-ever-dreamed-of/.
[x] Dion Nissenbaum, “With Chips Down, Saudi Arabia Finds Little Goodwill in the U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2019, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/with-chips-down-saudi-arabia-finds-little-goodwill-in-the-u-s-11569495606.