In Brief

Trump’s Iran-Saudi Arabia Dilemma

The president is in the difficult position of either backing down in the face of Iranian threats and suspected attacks or escalating the conflict in ways he clearly wants to avoid.

U.S. officials say they are building a coalition to counter Iranian aggression in the Gulf following last week’s attack on Saudi oil facilities. Does this mean talk of war is de-escalating?

It seems clear that President Trump is keen to avoid the slippery slope toward conflict that might result from a robust military response against Iran, the presumed author of the attacks. The administration knows that failing to respond to such a brazen attack would only embolden Tehran, but Trump also knows that attacking Iran militarily could lead to a wider conflict, a global energy crisis, rising U.S. gas prices, an election-year recession, and anger among his political base—which was counting on him to avoid more wars in the Middle East. That explains why Trump, despite all his tough talk, seems to be hedging, by expressing lack of certainty over who is responsible for the attacks, stressing U.S. energy “independence,” suggesting that it’s up to Saudi Arabia to decide how to respond, and announcing “new sanctions” on Iran even though he had been claiming the United States had already reached “maximum pressure.” He seems determined to avoid a military conflict, if he can.

Many experts say the attack was unprecedented in the threat that it posed to global energy. Should U.S. officials use the UN General Assembly summit next week to spur an investigation?

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The attack on oil facilities that are responsible for more than half of Saudi Arabia’s daily production was certainly unprecedented. Under normal circumstances, given the global interest in protecting the world’s oil supplies (and the principle of nonuse of force to resolve disputes), one would expect an international consensus behind a robust international response.

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In this case, however, the fact that much of the world sees the Trump administration as responsible for provoking the crisis by denying Iran the ability to export oil—and has doubts about its credibility when it comes to assigning responsibility for the attacks—could mean Washington will struggle to win support from other countries at the United Nations. With the United States already severely punishing the Iranian economy through secondary sanctions, it seems unlikely that further international sanctions would be effective.

Can a renewed effort at a cease-fire and peace process in Yemen lead to a broader easing of tensions?

The conflict in Yemen is more a function of Saudi-Iranian competition than a cause. Because of that competition, which is geopolitical and sectarian at the same time, Iran finds interference in Yemen to be a relatively low-cost way of causing trouble for its vulnerable Saudi rivals. A cease-fire in Yemen would certainly be helpful in defusing regional tensions, and an obvious blessing for suffering Yemenis, but the broader regional competition would go on. So long as Tehran and Riyadh are at loggerheads, peace in Yemen is, sadly, hard to imagine.

People stand in front of a damaged oil facility in Saudi Arabia.
People stand in front of a damaged oil facility in Saudi Arabia in September 2019. Hamad l Mohammed/Reuters

Are there any prospects now for preserving the Iran nuclear deal?

No, not without a major climb down by either the Trump administration or Iran, neither of which seems likely. President Trump seems to have hoped that by tearing up the 2015 nuclear deal and putting economic pressure on Iran, Tehran would come back to the negotiating table and agree to a “better” deal—one that would eliminate its enrichment program, never expire, cover ballistic missiles, and end Iranian interference in the region. That this expectation was always a fantasy is becoming clear. Instead of bowing to U.S. nuclear demands and seeking a new nuclear deal, Iran seems to be signaling that if it cannot export oil because of U.S. sanctions, it will act to make sure others cannot do so either.

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Now Trump is in the difficult position of either backing down in the face of Iranian threats and actions or escalating the conflict in ways he clearly wants to avoid—a dilemma he might have considered more carefully before withdrawing from the nuclear deal in the first place. He could, of course, backtrack and return to the deal in exchange for some ostensible Iranian concessions, but that would be an extraordinary policy turnaround.

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