Analysis

Iranian Provocation in Persian Gulf Hasn’t Deterred Trump Yet

It looks like Tehran is raising the stakes, but so far the Americans have not given any sign that the latest attack will lead to a policy change on their part

Satellite overview image shows damage to oil/gas infrastructure from weekend drone attacks at Abqaig on September 14, 2019 in Saudi Arabia.
AFP PHOTO / Planet Labs Inc. / HO

The Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations is the most dramatic development in the Persian Gulf since the American administration withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018. In recent months, the Trump administration was actually demonstrating a greater readiness to resume talks with the Iranians in an effort to come to a new agreement. But Tehran seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with a broad attack that’s being interpreted as a blatant and deliberate provocation aimed at Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Will the Iranian attack extract additional concessions from Washington? We’ve already learned that it’s hard to bet on what U.S. President Donald Trump will do. So far the president’s reaction has been relatively mild and he continues to convey more of a willingness to dialogue with the Iranians than a desire to confront them.

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The attack this past Saturday could almost constitute an act of war. The Saudis themselves say the act halted nearly half of its oil production capacity and the price of oil has jumped between $10 to $20 a barrel over the past two days. Contrary to the initial reports, this wasn’t a drone attack by Houthi rebels from Yemen, but cruise missiles that were apparently fired from Iranian territory that were carrying a large quantity of explosives – a surprising, precise and destructive military operation that the Saudis were helpless to prevent.

Its impact on Israel

There are possible ramifications for Israel as well. First of all, the renewed tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and perhaps also the United States could spin out of control and bring about a regional escalation that could impact Israel.

Second, the Iranian attack testifies to the increasingly improved capabilities of Iran’s cruise missile system. While Israel is out of this system’s current range (it is vulnerable only to a ballistic missile strike from Iran), these capabilities are indicative of what might eventually end up in the hands of Hezbollah – and of Iranian thinking regarding a destructive and surprising hit on infrastructure targets. This signals the need for a speedy upgrade of Israeli defense and interception systems, with an emphasis on protecting strategic sites.

Tehran, which continues to deny any connection to the attack, announced Monday that there will be no meeting between President Hassan Rohani and Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting at the end of the month. The combination of the attack and the announcement looks like a raising of the stakes.

Iran is being suffocated by the renewed economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and is conditioning the transition to open negotiations (there have already been feelers) on full removal of the sanctions. The Iranians are walking very close to the edge, but so far the Americans have not given any sign that the latest attack on Saudi Arabia is leading to a policy change on their part.

Trump tweets

Trump addressed the attacks in a series of tweets, and even said the United States was “locked and loaded,” a hint at a possible military response. But at the same time, he described the attack as a Saudi problem, not an American one, declared his willingness to negotiate with Iran and in the same breath renounced his readiness to meet Rohani without conditions, something he and his senior officials have been talking about repeatedly in recent weeks. It’s hard to derive a coherent American policy regarding Iran from this.

To sum up the developments so far: Iran dealt a severe blow to Saudi Arabia, proved its ability to disrupt the global oil industry and has posed a challenge to Trump. The U.S. president hasn’t decided how to respond yet, although meanwhile he is conveying a clear reluctance for a confrontation.

It could be that the Iranians will subsequently discover that this was an exceptionally successful operation – and that the attack was so effective in its destructiveness that the Americans will be forced to respond militarily, contrary to the president’s original approach. The exchange of messages between Tehran and Washington hasn’t ended, and they may continue in the military realm alongside the diplomatic contacts.