By Matthew Mai
The recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure was deemed an “act of war” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The attack, suspected to be carried out from within Iran, cut Saudi Aramco’s oil output by half. The damage was severe enough that plumes of smoke could be seen from space. For their part, Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks pointing instead to the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have claimed responsibility. Nevertheless, given Iran’s past of lying to the international community, American officials have been unanimous and forceful in their condemnation of Tehran.
In response, the Trump administration has sent additional military assets to Saudi Arabia and sanctioned the central bank of Iran. However, just as in the aftermath of the downing of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone in June, the president has not retaliated with any military action.
Early in his presidency, Trump signaled a willingness to use limited military force. After Syrian dictator Bashar-al Assad used chemical weapons against a rebel stronghold in 2017, 59 Tomahawk missiles rained down on the airbase where the attack had been launched from. Following another chemical attack in 2018, American, French, and British bombs destroyed facilities suspected of manufacturing the materials. Assad finally got the message: the United States will not tolerate chemical attacks on civilians.
However, the president’s willingness to employ “cruise missile diplomacy” in dealing with Iran has been more cautious. Trump has primarily used economic sanctions and financial handcuffs to isolate Iran. The administration has targeted Iranian oil exports, which are down five times from their normal levels, in addition to sanctioning the assets of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Thanks to these efforts, the Iranian economy is in full recession mode as unemployment stands at 14% (and rising), inflation is projected to reach 40%, and GDP is estimated to contract by 6%.
The economic pressure has been effective thus far in weakening Iran internally and preventing them from funding terror groups around the Middle East. However, that has not stopped them from lashing out. In the last six months, the Revolutionary Guard has attacked oil tankers with impunity, seizing the crew of one and holding it hostage for the return of an Iranian ship caught transporting oil to the Assad regime in Syria.
This calculated behavior is designed to draw concessions from the West. Ever since America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Iranian government has used the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy as an excuse for acting out. Tehran has assured the world that if the United States were to re-enter the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and end the maximum pressure campaign, they would cease hostilities and comply with international norms. The problem, of course, is that, regardless of a deal or not, Iran has never operated in good faith. Since 1984, they have been labeled a state sponsor of terror by the State Department for funding groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban.
Nonetheless, the French have already capitulated with President Emanuel Macron announcing a $15 billion line of credit if Tehran were to re-enter the 2015 nuclear agreement. Foolishly, Macron is playing right into the narrative Iran wants.
President Trump’s preference for soft power politics has been successful in squeezing Iran economically but his willingness to forgo the use of military force is problematic. The Iranians have been saying for months that they will retaliate with force if the United States applies economic pressure. President Trump has responded by deploying warships to the region, enacting tougher economic sanctions, and conducting cyber attacks. While this has increased America’s presence in the region, deterrence has yet to be fully established.
After the Global Hawk drone was shot down in late June, President Trump canceled a retaliatory strike just before it was authorized. Afterward, he cited the estimate that 150 Iranians would be killed in the attack as the reason for not moving forward with the attack. Yet, if the president had authorized the strike, it would have sent a message that shooting down an unmanned aerial vehicle operating in international airspace was an offense punishable through military force. President Reagan did just that in 1988 when he initiated Operation Praying Mantis in response to an incident in which the USS Samuel B. Roberts was struck and nearly sunk by an Iranian mine while escorting oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. By the end of the operation, American warships had destroyed two Iranian surveillance platforms, sunk two ships, and severely damaged a third.
Iran knows that it cannot go tit-for-tat with the American military. They know escalation would not be in their best interest. However, they aren’t testing our military, they are testing our leadership. They want to see if the president, and his administration, have enough resolve to back up the tough talk. If they think the president is hesitant to strike on the grounds of avoiding further escalation, they will only act with more impunity in order to draw concessions. Deterrence only works when the enemy knows you are willing to use force to punish their behavior.
As someone who campaigned on avoiding “endless wars”, it is understandable why the president is reluctant to exercise a kinetic option in light of the recent attack on Saudi Arabia. However, the mullahs in Tehran are testing the president to see if their aggression will bring about sanctions relief. President Trump would do well to take a page out of Reagan’s playbook and exercise some “cruise missile diplomacy” in order to show Iran that belligerent behavior has consequences beyond economic isolation.
Matthew Mai is a student at Rutgers University studying public policy.