The president and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) got into a public dispute on Twitter Tuesday over the administration’s Iran policy and a potential U.S. response to last weekend’s drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities, which U.S. officials believe was perpetrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Trump’s June decision to abort a strike inside Iran following the downing of a U.S. drone was “clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” according to Graham, who added that “the goal should be to restore deterrence against Iranian aggression which has clearly been lost.”
It’s worth remembering that the Trump administration’s Iran strategy is supposed to be based on implementing “maximum pressure” and deterrence at the same time. In other words, Trump wants to sanction the Iranians heavily while deterring them from violent retaliation with the threat of an overwhelming U.S. counterstrike.
Responding to Graham, Trump tweeted Tuesday his restraint in June “was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” Of course, the Iranians (and the rest of us) can’t possibly understand Trump’s intentions on Iran, because they seem to change all the time. Just this week, Trump went from saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to “There’s plenty of time … there’s no rush.”
Trump’s reluctance to escalate the military conflict with Iran is understandable. But there is a way for the president to show American strength, restore deterrence, punish Iran and also advance his own strategy of rolling back Iranian regional aggression. Trump could hit back against Iran inside Syria.
Think about it. In Syria, the IRGC and its proxy forces including Hezbollah have been committing war crimes against Syrian civilians for years, including by targeting civilians in Idlib right now. The Bashar al-Assad regime, with IRGC help, is intentionally bombing hospitals and stands accused of using chemical weapons in civilian areas. There’s a clear humanitarian justification for stopping these atrocities.
Strategically, Syria is crucial to Iran’s plan to control a huge swath of territory from Tehran to Beirut, allowing Tehran to expand a range of malicious activities aimed at undermining the United States, Israel and our Persian Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia. Trump administration officials repeatedly insist a main goal of U.S. Syria policy is to compel the Iranian military to withdraw, but there’s been little real action to make that a reality.
Trump said Wednesday he intends to increase sanctions on Iran, but that’s not likely to change Iran’s calculus. It’s the sanctions that are pushing Iran to respond militarily in the first place. Also, Iran is violating U.S. sanctions by continuing to deliver oil — to Syria.
In short, Trump’s Iran policy can’t succeed if Iran succeeds in Syria. Nor can Trump’s Syria policy succeed if Iran succeeds in Syria. Striking IRGC installations inside Syria would be a proportional, clear, effective and targeted response to the guards’ string of recent attacks on international and U.S. assets.
We know that this is relatively low risk because the Israelis do it all the time without provoking Iranian retaliation. Israeli planes routinely strike IRGC facilities inside Syria and now even inside Iraq to eliminate threats to Israeli security. Trump himself has used military force inside Syria twice, with no retaliation from the Assad regime.
Of course, any military action carries risks and should not be considered lightly. The escalation ladder is difficult to navigate even when you have an administration that can send clear signals — and we don’t have that now. Iran has the capability to strike U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, a vulnerability of ours we can’t ignore. But if Tehran actually attacked them, our retaliation would be devastating, and the Iranian regime should know that. That’s the whole point of having and maintaining real deterrence in the first place.
U.S. officials often say Iran’s regional expansion is a threat to the entire world, but they have done little to address it. Trump says he cares about Syria, but he rarely lifts a finger to help the people suffering there. The key to addressing both problems is to realize they are two parts of the same issue. There’s no way to contain Iran while letting Syria fester. There’s no way to solve Syria while Iran has a free hand there.
By using limited U.S. military force against IRGC targets in Syria, Trump can punish Iran and help Syria at the same time, advancing both the strategic and moral interests of the United States and our allies. Anti-interventionists on the political left and right would surely cry foul, accusing Trump of stumbling into a thinly-veiled regime-change war.
But the risk of action must be weighed against the risk of inaction. If Iran is allowed to attack Saudi Arabia with no real consequences, it will only be emboldened further. Then, the next Iranian attack could be the one that sparks the wider conflict we are all trying to avoid.