Should Saudi Arabia and/or the United States retaliate beyond a new round of sanctions? That is the question of the day. Iran is the strongly suspected perpetrator of weekend drone and missile attacks against key Saudi oil infrastructure at Abqaiq facility and Khurais oil field that temporarily cut the kingdom's oil production by almost half.
Apparently, some 20 drones and several cruise missiles hit a total of at least 17 different aim points at these two general locations in the country's east. The weapons may have been launched either from Iranian soil or a place fairly close by.
But this is actually a tougher question than it might first appear. For some, retaliation is a no brainer, especially once forensics analysis confirms what is already widely assumed — that Iran either carried out these attacks itself or had a proxy do so. (The fact that the drones or missiles made their final approach from the north does not really prove anything about their launch point, since such vehicles have motors and can fly virtually any flight path they wish. Also, because they are not ballistic missiles with bright booster rockets, their launch points probably cannot be discerned from satellite imagery. We will probably need to inspect the wreckage of the missiles to understand their origin.)
What they may be capable of: Iran's struggling space program could be a real threat if it ever gets off the ground.
But before racing to a response, on the assumption that honor and principle require a military response to Iran's aggression, it is worth remembering several other considerations:
Negligible effect on the market
► Although the attack was rather egregious, global oil markets have tolerated it well. About five million barrels a day of production was affected for a few days; going forward, production will be reduced by perhaps a couple million barrels a day for some additional time to come. But Saudi Arabia had several hundred million barrels of oil in storage; other countries around the world have several billion.
Oil prices will stabilize
► Oil prices spiked after the attack but will likely come back down now that production is being restored. Even at peak, they were in the reasonable range of $70 a barrel (that figure is actually better than the prevailing level of $50 a barrel for many American shale oil producers — though I won't push this point too far about higher oil prices somehow being good!).
These sanctions are hurting Iran
► In the big picture, Iran's various attacks show its weaknesses and highlight the pressure it is under. That is because of the Trump administration's decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, its decision this year to aim for zero oil exports by Iran, and its willingness to use "secondary sanctions" to get other countries and companies to desist from doing business with Iran (forcing them, in effect, to choose between doing business with America and doing business with the Islamic Republic). Yes, Iran finds ways to circumvent some sanctions, but its overall exports are down by 75% or more. The economy is now in recession.
We have to be above it
► A semi-dictatorship like Iran's theocratic state can tolerate a certain amount of such misery, and suppress public dissent — but it cannot be entirely oblivious to the gradual weakening of its economy. The key thing, for the United States and partners, is to maintain the moral high ground (or as much of it as we can realistically hold in this situation) so that other countries do not feel the desire to help Iran skirt the sanctions regime. Over time, Iran will continue to feel the heat — and we may have an opportunity to negotiate a better deal than the Obama administration was able to obtain (though the Trump administration should not boast too much about its accomplishments until it has in fact achieved such an outcome).
Also, it is worth keeping mind the limitations of military force. While no fan of Mr. Trump's foreign policy overall, I will give the president credit for his intuitive understanding of that basic fact. We certainly do not want to wind up in all-out war with a country more than twice the population of Iraq or Afghanistan. Even a sustained aerial attack against its nuclear-related infrastructure would have serious downsides. Yes, it would set back Iran's theoretical potential to produce a nuclear bomb — but at present, international inspectors are still in Iran confirming that it is not building a bomb (that's because the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains in effect, even after the U.S. withdrawal and some subsequent limited Iranian violations of the deal's terms).
Perhaps a more limited Saudi or U.S. strike would be sensible. It could be carried out, say, against missile launchers or naval forces that can attack shipping in the Gulf or depots containing drones and cruise missiles or the production facilities that make the kinds of technology used in the recent attacks. If such strikes can be conducted "surgically," they may make sense.
But this is just the kind of thing the United States did frequently against Iraq in the 1990s, culminating in the 1998 "Desert Fox" four-day bombing operation — none of which achieved much (as we still thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction five years later, when the Bush administration launched the invasion of Iraq based on the incorrect but sincere claim that Saddam possessed banned weapons). In some ways, carrying out an attack for largely symbolic purposes that achieves little to no strategic or military effect suggests more weakness than strength, in fact — that certainly seems to have been the lesson Osama bin Laden drew from our feeble cruise-missile attacks against his training bases in Afghanistan in 1998 after al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The United States in particular does not lack for credibility when it comes to a willingness to use force. We have been engaged in lethal combat operations in at least half a dozen different countries in recent years in one way or another (Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan's tribal regions too; Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria; Libya and Somalia from time to time). Even the Saudis are now engaged in combat in Yemen, for better or worse.
Or consider the flip side of the situation. In 2010, North Korea attacked a South Korean ship in cold blood, sinking it and killing 46 sailors. (By contrast, these Iranian attacks, however deplorable, have apparently not killed anyone.) South Korea did not retaliate. But that has not encouraged more North Korean aggression; there has been no subsequent attack on anything like that scale anytime since.
If a situation arises where a military strike could meaningfully reduce a threat to the United States or its allies, or establish a form of deterrence that would likely constrain an adversary, we can take that action of course, perhaps in conjunction with Saudi Arabia. But we should not feel any obligation to do so directly, symmetrically, or promptly in this case. The fundamentals of the overall situation still favor the United States and its allies.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Should the U.S. retaliate to Iranian attacks on Saudi oil? No.