The search for conclusive evidence continues, but the attack is straight out of the playbook that Iran has employed since May, when the Trump administration moved to cut all of Iran’s oil exports. Provoking a crisis is a risky approach to problem solving, but it’s a time-honored Iranian strategy. Iran’s leaders have long thought — with reason — that the best defense is a good offense, and they appear to be embracing that assertive approach once more.
On its face, the timing of this latest escalation is unexpected. For months, President Trump has been openly angling for a face-to-face meeting with his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, during the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, scheduled for next week. And the administration’s foremost Iran hawk, John Bolton, was fired as national security adviser last week by Trump amid reports that the president was considering easing sanctions on Iran to jump-start negotiations.
With anticipation around a diplomatic breakthrough mounting, why would Iran choose now to engage in a dramatic escalation that would be easily traceable and could lead to retaliation?
Iranian leaders appear to have concluded that restraint will probably achieve little in extricating the country from its predicament. Restraint, after all, was Iran’s first response after Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began increasing economic pressure. It achieved only misery. Unilateral U.S. sanctions dealt a catastrophic blow, eliminating expected inflows of foreign investment, slashing the value of Iran’s currency (the rial) and shrinking the economy. The rest of the world offered little more than commiseration and empty denunciations of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy.
Facing a financial blockade with no end in sight, the Islamic republic changed its approach four months ago, shifting toward one that has served its interests best since its establishment 40 years ago: It launched a counterattack. Such moves have been a core component of Iran’s deterrent strategy since its surprising success in repelling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s initially devastating invasion in 1980. Iran’s pushback is typically applied with the help of its non-state proxies, which have undertaken terrorist attacks such as the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing compound in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American military service members were killed as part of an apparent Iranian bid to drive U.S. forces out of the Persian Gulf. Following the bombing, U.S. troops were relocated to a more secure base; ultimately, most remaining U.S. troops were withdrawn from the kingdom. (Recently, the size of the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia has begun to rise, as a result of tensions with Iran.)
In May, Iran’s leaders again concluded that countering American pressure required aggressive action that would change the cost-benefit calculus for Washington and the world. Iran calculated that pushing back against the United States by targeting its allies and interests would generate diplomatic leverage that could be used in any future negotiations, inject urgency among world powers and dissuade its neighbors from cooperating with Washington’s pressure campaign. Iranian retaliation was relatively judicious at first — pinprick attacks on tiny tankers, easily reparable damage to a Saudi pipeline and an Emirati port, reversible violations of its obligations under the nuclear deal, the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone. These measures were sufficiently alarming to command the world’s attention but also appeared designed to minimize civilian deaths or provoke an American military response.
Those reprisals paid off: Diplomats rushed to Tehran, the French proposed a $15 billion credit line and at least one key regional adversary, the United Arab Emirates, suddenly tempered its readiness to confront Tehran (as its leadership came to appreciate the tangible fallout of escalation on its economy and security). And Washington’s tough stance vis-a-vis Iran began to soften: Trump persuaded the Japanese prime minister to attempt mediation (which failed), publicly appealed to Tehran to phone him and, most importantly, called off a retaliatory military strike.
And so the hot summer reaped for Tehran newfound diplomatic energy and the possibility of an economic lifeline. It also enabled the mandarins of the revolutionary system to test the spine of this most mercurial of White Houses. Washington’s reaction proved what the battle-hardened generals of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps had suspected — that Trump’s itchy trigger finger was purely a reality show for Twitter. Despite the tough talk and punitive policies, an American president who openly disdained allies and the costs of intervention didn’t have the stomach for a real fight, especially with his reelection campaign already underway.
And so, while Washington and the world breathed a sigh of relief, as a summer of provocations appeared to abate and prospects for new diplomacy bloomed, Tehran was left simultaneously emboldened and unsatisfied.
Unsatisfied because Trump retained a stranglehold on Iran’s economy and — thanks to the overabundance of oil supply relative to world demand — the summer’s incremental attacks had failed to durably raise oil prices. An Iranian leadership steeped in mistrust for the international system bristled at the indignity of submitting to Washington’s mandate, as well as the affront of indebtedness to Europe. It wondered: Could a bigger, bolder shock to the global economy generate a more favorable resolution of Iran’s economic siege?
We may soon learn the answer to that question. Targeting its neighbors’ energy exports offers more than merely the satisfaction of revenge. As we saw, supply disruptions on this scale beget price spikes, improving Tehran’s beleaguered bottom line (in part by enhancing its ability to evade sanctions enforcement through smuggling; Iran can also offer buyers discounts that facilitate trade in “gray market” crude exports). Equally importantly, higher oil prices could complicate Trump’s reelection prospects, which rest heavily on the administration’s claims of economic improvements.
What happens now, after the attacks on the Saudi Aramco facilities, will clarify whether Iran has made the right bet in terms of geopolitical strategy. Iran’s escalation leaves Washington and the world with a very dangerous set of choices — unilateral U.S. retaliation risks even more calamitous consequences, but American inaction may invite the intensification of the Saudi-Iranian cold war and new threats to global energy flows. Having upended the nuclear agreement in pursuit of a bigger, better bargain with Iran — whose leaders are clearly disinclined to sit back and accept the U.S. economic onslaught quietly — Trump has ignited the forces of chaos and conflict that the deal was meant to contain. This will end badly for the region, as well as for American interests and allies in the broader Middle East.