According to a recent State Department report, the Islamic Republic attempted nearly 100 attacks, hostage takings, and the like between May and September of this year, of which 40 were successful. The most notable of these include the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery (the world’s largest), the harassment of oil tankers in and around the Persian Gulf, and the firing of rockets at U.S. troops in Iraq. In addition, Tehran has been openly violating the 2015 nuclear deal. Whatever the merits of the American drawdown in northeastern Syria, writes John Hannah, it confirms the impression that Washington is unwilling to use force in response to Iran’s behavior:
President Trump’s response to the most serious incidents has by now fallen into a predictable pattern of issuing over-the-top verbal threats (to “end” or “obliterate” Iran), imposing further economic sanctions, deploying additional troops and weapons to the Gulf, and, on at least two occasions, launching limited cyberattacks against Iran. . . . By now it’s abundantly clear that the administration’s playbook to deter further Iranian escalation has not worked. Tehran has continued to escalate.
Based on the experience of the past several months, it’s hard not to believe that Iran’s leaders have come to the conclusion that for all Trump’s bombast, he wants no part of a military dustup. . . .
The alternative to taking meaningful steps to reestablish the credibility of America’s will to use force is simply to sit back, absorb Iran’s provocations, and wait until the regime caves to the steadily mounting pressure of U.S. sanctions.
It’s by no means impossible for it to work eventually—Iran’s economy is being absolutely hammered. But the big question is how long it will take and what amount of damage an increasingly desperate Iranian regime, unconstrained by the fear of U.S. military retaliation, is capable of inflicting in the meantime on the interests of the United States and its friends and allies. If the brazen attack on Abqaiq is any indication, the answer may be a great deal of damage indeed.