Iran’s escalation of the not-so-secret proxy war in the Persian Gulf with two drone attacks crippling Saudi Arabian oil production, raises the obvious question of how the U.S. and it allies should respond. But America’s options are constrained in large part because of the strategy that President Donald Trump has pursued so far: there are few economic levers left to pull, as America is already enforcing a maximum sanction regime, while Trump appears to have ruled out substantial military intervention (as indicated by his recent firing of John Bolton, the hawkish former National Security Advisor). Contrary to this latter decision against military action, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake argues that the credible threat of military strikes needs to at least be on the table to force the Iranians to negotiate in good faith.
- Lake notes that Iran has a long history of pursuing diplomacy with Western countries while simultaneously supporting aggression by its various proxies throughout the region. This proxy strategy allows it to apply pressure while maintaining plausible deniability at the negotiating table, for example passing the blame to Hezbollah in Lebanon or Houthi rebels in Yemen.
- The Iranian attempt to pin the refinery attacks over the weekend on Houthi rebels is particularly far-fetched, however, as the rebels don’t have the equipment or expertise to carry out such targeted and destructive drone attacks.
- The West must not only seek to end the Iranian nuclear program, Lake argues, but must also effectively contain Iran’s revisionist push to reorder the Middle East. To do so President Trump should return to his previous set of demands, presenting 12 conditions Iran must meet to have sanctions lifted — including withdrawing support for the Houthi rebels and other proxies — rather than the narrower list of three demands, all relating to the nuclear program, that he has recently been pushing.
- Trump should also put the possibility of U.S. military action back in play. Lake notes that this need not mean a direct attack on Iranian territory, if Trump is leery of escalating the conflict too dramatically: Iranian forces and assets are now widely spread across the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and America can still inflict heavy damage on Iran’s ability to pursue foreign adventures without an attack on the country itself.
- At the same time, continuing to pursue negotiations without a threat of military response to further Iranian provocations will simply invite Iran to continue its tried and true strategy of dual track foreign policy, pairing terrorism by proxy with official diplomacy. In short, “If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies.”