The unprecedented Sept. 15 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities has complicated the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate with Iran. The United States has provided intelligence assessments that show that the sophisticated attack, which reduced the kingdom’s oil output by half, and was claimed by al-Houthi rebels in Yemen, was launched from Iranian soil. However, even if this massive escalation had not occurred, the United States would still be facing a strategic dilemma in that negotiating with Iran undermines the position of its allies: Saudi Arabia and Israel. This was a key shortcoming of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Obama administration concluded with Tehran, which must be eventually addressed, but for now Washington must focus on finding a way out of the current escalatory environment.
President Donald Trump has long criticized the nuclear agreement between his predecessor, Barack Obama, and the Islamic Republic as flawed. The key criticism was that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did not address Iran’s missile program, its support for radical actors in the Middle East, or Tehran’s overall efforts to expand its geopolitical footprint in the region destabilized by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Therefore, the Trump administration has been trying to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table through a policy of “maximum pressure.” Trump’s strategy seemed to be working in that Iran has said it is prepared to renegotiate if Washington lifts sanctions.
Tehran Strengthens Its Position
As is the case with any talks between two adversaries, neither side wants to negotiate from a position of weakness. In this case, the Iranians are the ones with the weaker hand, given the immense financial pressure from reimposed U.S. sanctions. While the clerical regime struggles to contain the domestic fallout from these dire economic conditions, it continues its efforts to exploit the growing regional vacuum stemming from the nearly decade-old autocratic meltdown underway in the Arab world. The most noticeable advantage that the Iranians have gained is against their arch-rival Saudi Arabia, which has been embroiled in the war in Yemen — a move that has gone very badly for the Kingdom.
Tehran’s support for the al-Houthi-led faction enabled the Iranian proxy to not just resist Saudi Arabia’s war efforts in the country but also conduct dozens of missile and drone attacks on Saudi soil. Saudi Arabia’s principal ally, the United Arab Emirates, recently scaled back its military operations in Yemen, which led to conflict within the pro-Saudi coalition. This has certainly emboldened the al-Houthi fighters and their backers in Tehran — a development that could partially explain the Sept. 15 attack. The Iranians, meanwhile, continue pushing ahead with their plans to consolidate a contiguous sphere of influence on their western flank, running through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.
With no Arab force that can slow Iran’s expanding influence in the region, the only other power that could check Iran is Turkey. However, it will be a long time before the Turks will be in a position to counter Iran because of their involvement in the complex logjam in northern Syria. For now, Israel is the most active country engaged in countering Iran’s growing regional influence, but its efforts are defensive. From the Israeli perspective, Iran’s military presence in Syria and Iraq has significantly augmented the pre-existing threat Israel has dealt with in the form of Hezbollah.
The Israeli strategy has been to conduct airstrikes on Iranian facilities in Syria to prevent Tehran from using the country as a springboard for attacks on Israel. In August, the Israel Defense Forces struck an Iraqi base where Iran has been installing missiles that could strike at Israel. That strike was followed by a small clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon. While these Israeli operations could prevent Iran from threatening Israel in the short term, in the long term these preemptive measures cannot prevent Tehran from consolidating its influence in the broader region.
Negotiating Power and the Strike on Saudi Arabia
This complicated strategic landscape is far more important than the issue of nuclear weapons in any U.S. effort to negotiate with Iran. While the Iranians have shown that they are willing to compromise on their nuclear program, they are not likely to give up the regional influence they have built up after decades of expending resources while experiencing sanctions. Likewise, it will be tough for the Trump administration to get them to give up their conventional capabilities, especially their missile program. The Iranian decision to attack Saudi oil installations was not taken lightly; the strike was designed to enhance Tehran’s bargaining power with Washington.
The attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facility was not just a major escalation in the Saudi-Iranian geosectarian conflict. It risks a massive response from the United States and Tehran gamed this out when it decided to go ahead with the attack. The Iranian calculus is that an American counter-strike would lead to a larger conflict, which the Trump administration is not willing to get involved in. On the other hand, if Washington does not respond, it will only further embolden Tehran.
Therefore, the question for the Trump administration is how to navigate in the current situation in order to get the clerical regime to the negotiating table without weakening its hand with conflict. Saudi and US investigators have determined “with very high probability” that the complex attack involving low altitude missiles and drones originated from a location inside Iran – likely near the country’s southwestern border with Iraq. It is one thing if (as per earlier reports) Iranian proxies in Yemen or Iraq had carried out the attack and a completely different scenario if Iranian military officers pulled the trigger. Showcasing in as much detail as possible the mechanics of the attack will provide the basis and justification for a counter-strike.
Retaliatory military action should be carefully calibrated so that it does not lead to greater escalation. That said, it should be potent enough to get the Iranians to realize that they will pay a huge price if they continue to engage in hostile actions. Put differently, the message that Tehran needs to hear is that this is as far as it can go before it risks greater conflict. Therefore, the only choice it has is to come to the negotiating table.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is a Founding Director of the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Bokhari is also the coordinator for Central Asia studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of CGP, FSI or the U.S. Department of State. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.