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Opinion Trump has dug himself into a hole with Iran

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Harad, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday.
A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Harad, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday. (Planet Labs Inc via AP)
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CONFLICTING REPORTS were circulating Monday about who launched the devastating attack on Saudi oil production facilities Saturday, and from where. Though Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed credit, Saudi Arabia and the United States said the assault did not come from Yemen; both blamed Iran, but without providing evidence. What is certain is that the strike represented a major escalation in the conflict in the Persian Gulf — and that President Trump, who triggered the crisis with his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, seems to have lost any ability to control it.

Iran has been engaged in aggression across the Middle East for years, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But Mr. Trump’s decision to walk away from the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program and to apply crushing new sanctions has provoked Iran, inexcusably but predictably, to ratchet up that aggression. The U.S. attempt to block all Iranian oil exports, which has delivered a powerful blow to the Islamic republic’s economy, was itself a virtual act of war. Tehran first responded with attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, and now comes the stunning air raid on Saudi oil facilities — which, wherever it came from, very likely had Iranian sponsorship or support.

Mr. Trump’s ability to respond effectively is severely limited compared to previous U.S. presidents. Few believe his pronouncements, so barring the presentation of overwhelming evidence, claims of Iranian responsibility will not persuade even close U.S. allies. European states that joined U.S. operations to secure the Persian Gulf in the past are very reluctant to do so now, because they fear Mr. Trump will drag them into a war. Even some of Iran’s foremost adversaries don’t want a conflict with Iran presided over by an erratic and unstable U.S. president, who already canceled one military strike at the last minute.

The attack should not go unanswered, but the best response may not be a military one. Mr. Trump risks compounding his strategic problems if he acts hastily or recklessly. The United States must first work to definitively establish who was responsible for the operation and how it was carried out, and make that information public. Especially since it was Saudi and not U.S. assets that were struck, no retaliatory U.S. military action should be undertaken without consultation with Congress.

Mr. Trump likely would encounter bipartisan resistance there. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has himself done much to destabilize the region with his murderous bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and given the Houthis cause to strike back. Like Mr. Trump, he launched into a conflict without achievable goals or a coherent strategy. Now he finds himself struggling to defend the kingdom’s most precious economic assets — which are likely vulnerable to new attacks if the conflict continues.

Mr. Trump recently seemed to recognize the hole he had dug for himself in the Middle East. He appeared to respond favorably to a French effort to broker a summit meeting with the Iranian president, perhaps linked to an easing of sanctions. Yet on Sunday he contradicted himself, denying that he had offered to meet with no conditions — even though he had repeatedly said so publicly. That’s just the sort of incoherence that provokes Iranian escalation — and leaves Mr. Trump virtually isolated in facing it.

Read more:

Max Boot: The Saudi oil attacks are signs of Trump’s Mideast fiasco

Paul Waldman: Can this president be trusted to prevent a spiral into war?

Jennifer Rubin: Heading toward war: The problem with a commander in chief who’s a congenital liar

Jason Rezaian: Call your Iran policy by its true name

Max Boot: John Bolton was bad. His departure might be worse.

Dennis Ross: Trump must react to the attacks on Saudi Arabia. But a quick fix won’t be enough.