As the desert sun rose through clouds of billowing black smoke, the damage to the world’s largest oil processing facility came into sharp relief. An unprecedented strike against the beating heart of the Saudi economy brought 5 percent of the world’s oil production to an abrupt halt. Before the fires at the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities had been extinguished, American spies set to work.
Intelligence analysts burned the midnight oil poring over satellite images, communications intercepts, and radar data. Thousands of miles away, case officers squeezed their sources for even the smallest, most benign clues. The scramble to decipher the origins of this brazen strike had begun.
The hours and days following the attacks amounted to a convoluted patchwork of claims of responsibility, denials, threats, oil market shocks and speculation. Regardless of any initial uncertainty about the origin of the strikes, however, some level of Iranian involvement proved indisputable.
Indeed, the brazen nature of the attacks indicates that the conservative, fiercely anti-American factions in Iran have gained considerable influence. While veterans of the U.S. intelligence community view Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate politician open to engagement with the West, Iranian hardliners – emboldened by the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and the application of sweeping economic sanctions – are forcing the Rouhani administration down a precarious path.
Moreover, with Iranian elections looming in 2021, the Trump administration’s bellicose approach to Tehran risks pushing the (largely pro-American) Iranian public – which has been particularly hard-hit by U.S. sanctions – toward the anti-American hardliners spoiling for conflict with the United States.
Conservative analysts frequently deride the notion of political “moderates” in Iran. But they would be wise to remember that President Rouhani risked his life in the mid-1980s to meet with envoys of the Reagan White House in a bid to improve relations with the United States. Moreover, Israel facilitated Rouhani’s secret 1986 meeting with President Reagan’s national security team. In short, the ever-cautious Israelis, at some point – and perhaps only for the sake of convenience – placed enough trust in the current president of Iran to introduce him to members of the Reagan White House.
Perhaps more importantly, the historical record suggests that Rouhani was open to working with the Israelis a mere seven years after the Iranian Revolution. Had this clandestine U.S.-Israeli-Iranian plan been discovered, there is little doubt among those involved that Rouhani would have been executed by the religious hardliners that had assumed power in Tehran a few years earlier.
Some three decades later, Rouhani, now as president, has enacted a series of measures to undercut the power and influence of the most conservative, anti-American elements in Iran. Of note, the Rouhani administration launched a large-scale anti-corruption campaign directly targeting the fiercely anti-American Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ massive business empire.
In much the same vein, Rouhani has sidelined conservative hardliners – the Iranian equivalents of trigger-happy hawks like John BoltonJohn BoltonWhen will Biden declare America's 'One China, One Taiwan' policy? India's S-400 missile system problem Overnight Defense & National Security — GOP unhappy with Afghan vetting MORE – itching to conduct provocative ballistic missile tests. Perhaps most importantly, Rouhani initiated a series of economic reforms, not unlike those that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, however, the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement – supported by hundreds of experts, including key players in the U.S. and Israeli security establishments – put an abrupt halt to Rouhani’s ambitious plans to sap Iranian conservatives of power and influence. As Rouhani is forced to accept an increasingly hard line against the United States and its allies, Iranian conservatives’ mantra that the United States cannot be trusted – or that Iran should not have negotiated with the West in the first place – continues to gain traction. Moreover, beyond emboldening Iranian hardliners, sweeping U.S. sanctions are enriching the most conservative, anti-American voices in the Islamic Republic, further undermining the Rouhani administration’s anti-corruption initiative.
Instead of bringing the Iranians closer to the negotiating table, the Trump administration’s confrontational approach is making negotiations far less likely. Similarly, the administration’s ill-fated and ill-advised “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has alienated key American allies, constraining American military options against Iran.
Perhaps most precariously, the Trump administration’s failed attempts to dictate Iranian behavior via sanctions is increasing the odds that a fiercely anti-American government assumes power following Iran’s 2021 elections. Should the moderate Rouhani government be replaced by conservative hardliners, the prospect of yet another devastating war in the Middle East would increase dramatically.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense.