In the next few days, possibly, President Trump will order some action against Iran. Or he may not. Then what can he do?
In Washington, there is no real support for Saudi Arabia outside of the old establishment. On Capitol Hill, Saudi Arabia is anathema – blamed for human rights violations at home and abroad, made worse by reports of rising executions, even of teenagers, in the Kingdom. Getting Congress to agree to provide security for the Kingdom, particularly if it involves American lives, is a virtual non-starter.
Then there is the question of the isolation of the United States, which is clearly an Iranian political objective.
When it comes to Iran, the US has zero tangible support in Europe. Europe wants to make money on Iran. Europeans, outside of the UK, figure that the US has almost all the military market in Saudi Arabia and Aramco controls the oil business. Saudi Arabia is not an industrial power that will buy much equipment and machinery from Europe. But Iran was a good customer and could become a better one if it was out from under US sanctions. Europe cares about the Euro, not about nukes.
Nor does the US have support from Russia or China. Both have condemned Washington for blaming Iran for the latest attacks. And both are also big suppliers to Iran, so the more oil Iran exports, the more goods they buy from them.
Saudi Arabia does not want a war with Iran, mainly because it fears the price of a war would be the collapse of the Kingdom (mostly due to the destruction of its oil-based economy).
Israel does not want a war with Iran. They don’t want to see Iranian missiles flying toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or anywhere else for that matter. Right now they have their hands full with Hezbollah and the Iranians in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. They can deal with those threats so long as the targets are restrained, appropriate and within the context of the local struggle. So if the Israelis are asked to support a US attack on Iran, they will politely say it is a bad idea.
So Trump is in a trap. His advisers may tell him he has to do something, but what can he do?
The President has four options (in Washington if you don’t have options you are not an adviser):
Option 1: Quid Pro Quo. Attack Iran’s oil assets directly.
Option 2: Neutralize Iraq’s missiles by attacking its missile launch sites
Option 3: Destroy Iran’s expansionist operations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria
Option 4: Do nothing.
As already noted, a quid pro quo attack could result in a counterattack by Iraq aimed at destroying Saudi Arabia (and others) and/or US bases in the area. The Iranians have already made clear these are the targets they have in mind. Saudi Arabia would be against any such US attack, so it is unlikely President Trump would do it if the Kingdom did not support US direct action against Iran. For all intents and purposes, this makes Option 1 unacceptable.
Option 2 has the same problem as Option 1, that is Iran will retaliate. Now it is quite true that Iran’s main strength is in its missiles. To exercise this option to destroy Iran’s missiles, the administration would have to have an excellent estimate of the chance of success. Would it be 100%, 75%, 50% or less? I can’t imagine anyone believing the US could kill all of Iraq’s missiles capable of hitting US bases and Saudi Arabia. So some estimate of the likely damage the US would sustain on its bases in the region, and the impact on the Saudis, would need to be made.
It would take hard work to make a credible survey, based on very good intelligence (if available). Then the President would need to be told what the overall outcome would look like in the near and medium-term. While it is strictly guesswork, the President might find the review quite disheartening. This would not be a surgical strike that would knock out the Iranian threat. And the operation will no doubt trigger a response aimed at other allies and friends, particularly (but not exclusively) Israel. That would surely include mass rocket attacks from southern Lebanon by Hezbollah. Despite Israel’s air defenses, there would be a large number of civilian casualties all around.
Option 4, Do Nothing also is problematic because it changes the strategic posture of the Middle East. The US would become an outlier and a paper tiger, and certainly the Russians and Chinese would rush in to replace the US. The Saudi Kingdom could decide that it is better to embrace Russia and live another day, then watch their infrastructure being attacked in future with a severe loss in revenues that sustains the kingdom. The first chapter in a potential shift would be a political decision by Saudi Arabia to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system, something they previously wanted to do but they gave up the idea under US pressure. But a failed US, from their perspective, would lack any credible leverage. Saudi Arabia could change protectors, which surely the Russians will offer, but of course at a steep price.
Option 3 is, therefore the most attractive alternative, but it is slower in execution and far more complex. At its core, the idea is to go after Iran’s exposure in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria (for starters), and by working to close down military and nuclear supplies flowing into Iran. This option requires very good intelligence and standing orders to shut down threats as they are exposed.
Why, for example, is Iran permitted to persistently ship war material through Iraq? Why not shut down that pipeline? Why is the Iraqi government allowing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence operatives a free hand in their country? The US has occasionally complained but otherwise has done nothing. That would change under this option.
From what can be determined judging from the recent “surprise” attack on Saud Arabia’s oil facilities, US intelligence is very poor and ineffective. This has to change if there is any prospect to roll up the Iranians and curtail their ambitions. Intelligence cooperation needs to be greatly strengthened and the huge intelligence infrastructure we have needs reshaping, streamlining and imbued with a better understanding of what missions it should perform. The key is close integration of strategy melding together intelligence, military and special operations into a single focused system that consistently functions against the target.
President Trump needs a way out of the trap. Draining the swamp is not just to get rid of onerous regulations. He needs a policy system that works for a change. All the changes and pot-stirring that has been going on in the administration, and that of his predecessors, has left the United States with its hands tied behind its back. That needs to change.
While there is no support domestically or internationally for a frontal attack on Iran, the President can put in place a strategy with good payoffs in terms of controlling Iran’s geopolitical ambitions and keeping pressure on the Iranian Mullahs. Focusing on shutting down Revolutionary Guard overseas operations is the place to begin.