Iran’s stunning attack on Saudi Arabian oil fields should not have been unexpected. In retrospect it appears to be the most logical next step for Iran to have taken to deal with the catastrophic impact of U.S.-imposed sanctions, which, by most accounts, is fast approaching critical mass. The mullahs could reasonably have concluded these last few months that President Trump is reluctant to engage in a military confrontation with Iran, that he was softening on conditions for U.S./Iran negotiations, that the attacks were a way for Iran to deny the world’s access to Saudi oil much as its own oil has been embargoed, and that the ensuing oil shortage would doubtless spur most U.S. allies to reduce the sanctions in order to allow for more Iranian oil on the world market.
In recent months, in obvious tit-for-ta t responses to the American “maximum pressure” sanctions policy which crippled Iran’s ability to sell its oil, Iran seized several Western oil tankers on the high seas with relative impunity. When Iran downed an American drone in international air space, Trump first approved retaliatory air strikes, but then pulled back saying the attack may have been the result of “a mistake.”
While Secretary of State Pompeo set forth a number of preconditions that Iran had to meet for any negotiations to be commenced, he soon reversed himself as Trump said he was prepared to meet with the Iranians without preconditions, seeming to also hint that there could be some easing of the sanctions regime as an incentive to Iran to enter negotiations. This promptly drew a “clarification” from then National Security Adviser John Bolton that there would be no inducements. Indeed, Bolton’s swift departure from the administration soon thereafter is said to be in large part because he would not go along with the revised program on Iran.
It is also very clear that Iran envisaged reducing the availability of oil to U.S. allies as a dramatic way for Iran to respond to the U.S. efforts to remove Iranian oil from the world market. So they set upon seizing oil tankers on the high seas and ultimately destroyed the Saudi oil production to the tune of 50% of its capacity and 5% of the global oil supply. Undoubtedly the cries from those countries seriously affected will soon be heard to make a deal, any deal that will allow the resumption of the free flow of Iranian oil.
There are those who argue that the only way to deal with Iran now is to make a military response. They make the case that Iran continues to endure the economic hardships and show no signs of changing. And they are moving steadily toward a nuclear weapons capacity and increasing their military and political presence across the Middle East.
Yet we also understand Trump’s desire to avoid war. Sadly, though, the issue before him doesn’t seem to be whether a military confrontation will become necessary – only when and at what cost in lives and treasure. And as it now seems, that face-off can only become more and more costly if Iran is allowed to continue business as usual.