Rarely are one’s predictions as quickly tested as those I made in August. I suggested that the United States’ lame response to Iran’s aggressive actions would lead to escalation. It was not hard to predict. It seemed obvious to me that, unable to get the European Union to help meaningfully circumvent U.S. sanctions, Iran concluded that it ought to cause pain to those who imposed them. It carefully probed how far it could go without facing a forceful response. First, its forces planted mines on oil tankers, but above their waterline, so the tankers did not sink and there was no loss of life. Iran denies any involvement in this initial act. It then admitted that it shot down a U.S. drone, but tried to argue that it was flying over Iranian territory when it happened. These aggressions led to a very weak Western response (mainly the application of meaningless sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei). As a result, Iran escalated further by capturing an oil tanker and openly acknowledging that it had begun enriching its uranium.
When all these actions elicited declarations that the United States does not want war and that the United States is seeking to de-escalate—and the Pentagon warned against overreaction-- Iran became more audacious and struck oil facilities in Saudi Arabia (though denying that it was involved). Since then, the thesis that the lame reaction by the United States and the rest of the world community will embolden Iran has become the conventional wisdom. As Dennis Ross noted on September 24 in Foreign Affairs, “Iran has chosen to act very brazenly with these strikes [in Saudi Arabia]. If there is no consequence for that choice, the Islamic Republic will be even more emboldened.” A New York Times news article noted on September 19 that “seeking to exact a price from the United States for its sanctions on Iranian oil sales, Tehran may also now be emboldened to carry out further attacks, calculating that President Trump will balk at another war in the region. The attack on Saudi Arabia was just the latest in a string of recent attacks carried out by Iran or a proxy—including attacks on oil tankers and the downing of an American drone—with little or no cost to Iran.”