From the commentary and analysis inspired by Iran’s September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil producing facilities—and there seems little doubt that the Islamic Republic bears ultimate responsibility for it—three misconceptions have emerged. To make an informed judgement on the appropriate American response to Iranian aggression requires correcting them.
The first misconception is that the attack demonstrates the failure of the Trump policy toward Iran, specifically the 2018 decision to withdraw from Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) that the Obama administration negotiated in 2015 with the Muslim clerics who rule in Tehran. To the contrary, the attack shows that the policy is succeeding. Its objective is to put pressure on the mullahs, making it more difficult for them to carry out their policies of repression at home and aggression abroad. The fact that the Iranian regime has lashed out as it did, running the risk of severe American reprisals, is evidence that it is, indeed, feeling serious pressure. With economic sanctions reimposed, Iran is unable to sell oil, its only source of income, complicating its efforts to preserve itself in power while seeking to dominate the Middle East.
Nor did the United States forfeit major benefits by withdrawing. Obama officials suggested that the agreement would empower Iran’s “moderates” (assuming they actually exist) at the expense of its “hardliners,” which would lead to a change in the country’s regional policies. To the contrary, since 2015 Iran has continued, unabated, its campaign to expand its regional power, to the detriment of America’s friends and allies.
President Trump correctly diagnosed the JCPOA as disadvantageous to the United States. It had three major shortcomings. First, it permitted Iran to continue to enrich uranium. Because enrichment is the crucial step in making a nuclear explosive, the central pillar of American non-proliferation policy for four decades had been the denial to aggressive regimes such as the one in Tehran of the capacity to carry it out. The Obama Administration abandoned that principle. Second, the provisions for inspections to ensure that Iran was keeping its commitments under the JCPOA were weak. Third, the major prohibitions written into the agreement had expiration dates, after which Iran would be free to acquire as many nuclear weapons as it desired, to go along with a fleet of long-range missiles to deliver them. The Islamic Republic has a program to build such weapons and the JCPOA permitted it to continue.
While setting aside the agreement was justified, the way the Trump Administration went about doing so had two shortcomings. First, the President and his senior officials did far too little to try to reach a common position on this issue with other countries, especially the Europeans. This opened the way for Iran’s strategy of turning Europe against the United States. Second, the Trump Administration seems not to have planned in any systematic way for countering the inevitable Iranian response to the reimposition of sanctions. Unfortunately, consulting and coordinating with other countries, even—perhaps mainly—friendly ones, and making plans for various contingencies, are not hallmarks of this presidency.
If the Trump Administration had adhered to the Iran policy of its predecessor, in all probability the Iranian regime would have steadily expanded its sway in the Middle East and ultimately equipped itself with a formidable nuclear arsenal. In that case the United States would have confronted a deeply unappealing choice: either resist the Iranian drive for hegemony from a far weaker strategic position that it now has, or acquiesce to Iranian domination of the Middle East.
That leads to the second misconception the events of September 14 have triggered: Checking Iran is not worth the American time, effort, and resources that it would take because the United States does not need Middle Eastern oil. It is true that the oil Americans consume comes either from domestic sources or from the Western hemisphere. Middle Eastern petroleum remains, however, indispensable for America’s friends and allies in Europe and Asia. If the United States decides not to guarantee the flow of oil from Persian Gulf, it will in effect abdicate its role of seven decades as the protector of European and Asian free-market democracies.
The withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East would create a geopolitical vacuum there that the Islamic Republic of Iran would do everything in its power to fill. If it did, the region and the world would become far more dangerous places. The United States itself would likely not escape the adverse economic, political, and military consequences. It is worth a great deal to America to block Iran from achieving its goal of regional dominance.
What, then, should the United States do to accomplish that goal in light of the Iranian attack on the world’s supply of oil? That question leads to the third misconception.
The September 14 attacks have evoked the assertion that America must at all costs avoid becoming embroiled in a war with Iran. Behind this insistence lies the fear of yet another protracted, costly, inconclusive conflict like the recent ones in which the United States has become involved. The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq haunt the debate about American policy toward the Islamic Republic.
One problem with this position is that if the United States is unwilling to use force against Iran under any circumstances—and the Obama Administration gave the impression that this was its policy—then the mullahs, who have no scruples about killing others or even having Iranians die in large numbers pursuit of their goals, will ultimately get what they want. Another, related problem with the insistence that the United States must avoid war with Iran is that such a war is already underway, as the Islamic Republic presses ahead with its campaign, employing all measures including the use of force, to dominate the Middle East.
Fortunately, one American ally is fighting back, and successfully so. Israel, the destruction of which is a major and long-standing aim of the rulers in Tehran, has, through the use of airpower, thwarted the Iranian attempt to build and deploy accurate missiles in Syria that it could use, in conjunction with the comparable forces it has installed in Lebanon through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah, to overwhelm Israeli air defense systems. Israel’s policy demonstrates that Iranian aggression can be checked, and at acceptable cost, without putting American troops on the ground and exposing them to attacks, as in Afghanistan and Iran. What, then, should the United States do in response to the recent act of aggression?
The Trump Administration has tightened the economic sanctions already in place and sent a small detachment of troops to Saudi Arabia but seems disinclined to do more. It is not in the American interest for the conflict to escalate sharply, but failing to make any military response risks encouraging the mullahs to mount further, larger attacks, which could lead to a full-scale Middle Eastern war. One possible course of action is to do to Iran what Iran did to Saudi Arabia by conducting a limited aerial attack on Iranian oil facilities. Such an attack would signal to the mullahs, and the world, that the United States will match Iranian attacks but not go beyond them. It would send the message that America will respond to provocations but will not be the party to start a wider war. Such a response would, in effect, support the status quo that the withdrawal from the JCPOA has created. That is the appropriate policy because the status quo, with economic sanctions weakening the Islamic Republic, serves American interests. An all-out Iranian effort to get nuclear weapons would change things, but at present the optimal course for the United States and all those threatened, directly and indirectly, by Iranian ambitions is to preserve it.