In 2014, Donald Trump tweeted that “Saudi Arabia should fight [its] own wars.” While this comment does not necessarily reflect the administration’s current thinking, one way for Washington to respond to Iran’s recent attack on Saudi oil facilities would be to encourage Riyadh to retaliate militarily while avoiding direct American involvement. Noah Rothman believes this would be a dangerous gamble:
A direct strike on Iranian targets by Saudi forces would signal a new phase in what has been a decade-long covert conflict between Tehran and Riyadh. Though the United States and its allies would provide logistical support to the kingdom, an attack on Iran by a peer competitor in the region would tempt it to respond proportionately and directly. By contrast, a U.S.-led strike on Iranian targets removes that temptation; America’s military dominance ensures that Iran would view such an engagement as an asymmetrical fight from the start, and it would prosecute such a conflict accordingly.
Iran’s aggressive behavior follows a clear pattern of escalation. It has executed sophisticated covert operations targeting the global oil supply by disabling and hijacking ships in the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz. It has destroyed a $120-million American aerial surveillance drone operating above international waters. And now, it has executed an elaborate assault on a Saudi refinery.
Iran is behaving rationally by testing the limits of provocation as a tool of statecraft. Its strategic objective is to stoke anxieties among America’s Middle Eastern and European allies and, ultimately, erode global will to maintain the present suffocating sanctions regime. Eventually, Iran is likely to miscalculate, executing a bloody attack that demands a disproportionate response from the United States. This is an outcome that American policymakers are right to avoid, but not at any cost.