SAUDI ARABIA MAY be this country’s top arms customer, but we are not their protector and our military forces are not their mercenaries. The United States must not play that part in any Saudi-Iran conflict or proxy war. The stakes for the United States and the Middle East are simply too high.
Although President Trump is generally military-conflict averse, even to the point of betraying America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, there is a distinct danger of America falling into such a role. After the recent mysterious attack on Saudi oil fields, the administration has announced it will send more troops and missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon announced Friday it would deploy another 1,500 US service members.
It’s fine to help Saudi Arabia with its missile defense system, certainly, but the president has also rattled the proverbial saber, saying that the United States is “locked and loaded” when it comes to Iran. And he seemed to leave it up to the Saudi kingdom to determine the US response, tweeting that he was waiting to hear from the Saudis regarding “under what terms we would proceed” after the refinery attack. Since then, we have witnessed the bizarre instance of the Saudi foreign minister acting as though he were a high US government official by warning that “there comes a point when even America’s patience runs out — and Iran must be aware of that.”
All this is profoundly wrong-headed. Saudi Arabia may be our oil ally, and Iran our perceived adversary, but military action against Iran would be a huge mistake. We would be siding with a repressive kingdom run by a ruthless despot against a more populated country that, despite its quasi-theocratic black box politics, is both more open and further along the road to becoming a pluralistic society.
Yes, our relationship with Iran is tense. Part of that is history, part of it different geopolitical interests. But a significant part is also the result of Trump’s mistake in withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, to which Iran was adhering, and imposing sanctions on Iran in pursuit of a tougher deal.
That effort has hurt Iran’s economy, but otherwise seems to be going nowhere. Rather than forcing Iran to capitulate to US demands, it appears to have strengthened that nation’s anti-US hard-liners, and at the expense of more moderate factions that had advocated a limited rapprochement with this country. Outside Iran, that US action has done little beside strain relations between the United States and other non-Iranian parties to the pact. That and demonstrate once again the futility of unrealistic unilateral demands in foreign policy.
If US-Iran antagonism has precipitated simmering tensions and incidents in oil-shipping lanes, the recent attack on Saudi oil fields and facilities are of a different origin. They relate to the civil war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and a Sunni coalition is backing the government, while Shia Iran supports the Houthi rebels. Although the Houthi rebels have claimed sponsorship of the drone strike (which caused no human casualties, just infrastructure damage), the United States and several European countries suspect that Iran orchestrated or enabled the recent attack. Perhaps. But the idea that the United States would take action against Iran as a result of a nonfatal drone attack precipitated by the Yemen war is sheer folly.
The better policy would be to lower tensions with Iran and then work through whatever diplomatic channels still exist to defuse the war in Yemen. On the first front, the president is apparently trying, but only in ad hoc and erratic bursts, and not in the concerted way such a difficult diplomatic effort requires. One can see that in Trump’s recent involvement in a French-brokered effort to speak by telephone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during Rouhani’s stay in New York to appear at the United Nations. That attempt at seemingly serendipitous diplomacy didn’t work, apparently because Rouhani, his domestic standing undercut by the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal, decided the risk-to-reward ratio was simply too great.
US foreign policy in the Middle East and most everywhere else reflects the erratic moment-by-moment instincts of this president, sometimes stalled, smoothed, or moderated by the State Department bureaucracy. Fortunately, direct US military action has been rare in the Trump era.
But with impeachment looming, that calculus may change. Trump wouldn’t be the first commander in chief to undertake military action to change the focus of domestic politics or create a rally-round-the-flag dynamic. That’s just one more reason Congress needs to sound a consistent warning that they will not countenance direct US military action against Iran.