Iran's drone attacks are a threat to Trump, militarily and politically

On Saturday morning, at 4 a.m. local Saudi time, drones attacked the Khourais oilfield and the Abqaiq refinery, located in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, home to a majority of the country’s Shi’a population. Almost immediately, the Saudis shut down half of their oil production. As a result, the price of oil, which was hovering at about $50 per barrel, quickly rose by nearly 15 percent and was projected to rise even higher. 

Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, both the sophistication of the attack and the trajectory of the drones pointed to Iran as the culprit. 

The timing of the attack on the oilfield and the kingdom’s largest oil-processing facility, both owned by Saudi Aramco, was not chosen at random. It occurred just before the United Nations General Assembly was to hold its opening session, at which there was a growing likelihood that presidents Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE and Hassan Rouhani would meet for the first time. Not everyone in Iran could have been happy at the possibility, however remote, that such a meeting would pave the way for a degree of accommodation between their country and the United States. 

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Any such accommodation poses both a political threat to the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and, especially, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. A new American-Iranian understanding might have meant the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal — for which the IRGC never had much use. Indeed, even in late 2017, when Trump was threatening to abandon the deal but had not yet done so, the IRGC’s deputy commander asserted that Iran was better off without it.

Even worse than the prospective revival of the original agreement was the possibility that any new arrangement would limit Iran’s freedom of action in the region. The IRGC, still heavily involved in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and leading the charge against Israel, stood to be the biggest loser. On the other hand, in the absence of any accommodation with “the Great Satan,” the IRGC could expect to maintain its influence in all of these states, while seeking to expand it elsewhere in the region.

The attack on the Saudi facilities has brought with it benefits for both Iran generally, and the IRGC in particular. By catalyzing a dramatic uptick in the price of oil, it promises to add to the Islamic Republic’s revenues at a time when Tehran has been encountering increasing resentment from a population that has suffered from Western, especially American, sanctions. Given the IRGC dominance over key sectors of the Iranian economy, it stands to benefit directly from any economic improvement due to the rise in the price of oil.

That Iran could successfully launch such a debilitating drone strike also has demonstrated that sophisticated drone technology no longer is the preserve of the West, if it ever really was. Now that it is in the hands of the likes of Iran’s ayatollahs, the likelihood of imposing limitations on the development and employment of these systems is likely to be minimal at best. The attack has demonstrated Iran’s ability to mount serious military threats against its neighbors in the region despite its economic constraints.

Finally, the attack not only has likely wrecked any chance of a Trump-Rouhani meeting, thereby leaving the president’s dream of a new opening to Iran in tatters and depriving him once more of an opportunity to be a major contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. More seriously, the Iranian strike on the Saudi facilities has confronted Donald Trump with an unpleasant dilemma.

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Having virtually confirmed that it was Iran, not the Houthis, that launched the drones, Trump must decide whether and how to respond to the Iranian provocation. Should he launch an attack of any kind on Iranian targets, perhaps its refineries, Tehran could respond by unleashing the IRGC against American forces in either Iraq, Afghanistan or both. Tehran also could be expected to target American citizens wherever they might be found. In either event, the risk of escalation would be high, and Trump — who has promised the American public and, especially, his political base that he would get America out of Middle Eastern wars — could find himself enmeshed in yet another one.

If, on the other hand, Trump does not order military retaliation, he would certainly lose face, and not only with America’s Gulf Arab allies and Israel. Worse still, his passivity could alienate many Americans whose resentment of Iran has never abated since the 1979 hostage crisis. Either way, his prospects for re-election in 2020 would be in serious jeopardy. 

Still, Trump has elevated talking tough and acting softly into a fine art. Perhaps he will find a way to do so yet again, saving his electoral prospects and averting war — but, then again, this time he might find that talk alone will not resolve the crisis that now confronts him.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.