In July, the head of the coordination council of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a paramilitary organization that crushes dissent inside Iran, spoke openly about Tehran's strategy toward the United States.
"If the Americans make a mistake, we can use our missiles with a range of less than 70 kilometers to hit oil centers that the world needs in the Ahmadi area [in Kuwait]," said Hossein Allahkaram, a former general in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to a clip flagged by the Middle East Media Research Institute. "We can hit oil areas of Dharan [in Saudi Arabia], and areas in the UAE. Twenty million barrels of oil leave that area every day. We can hit them all at once."
"But we are not doing it," he continued, "because of our defense strategy. So we are acting in keeping with the crisis escalation theory. We keep escalating the crisis more and more. On the nuclear issue, we have made ourselves clear. We keep escalating the crisis. We keep escalating the crisis in the regional issues as well, and we do it also with regard to the oil."
Iran certainly escalated tensions with the West over the summer, shooting down an American drone, harassing international oil tankers, and breaching core measures of the 2015 nuclear deal. But the Iranians took their aggression to a new level with attacks on oil facilities inside Saudi Arabia earlier this month—Saudi, American, and now British officials all say Iran is responsible. Each belligerent step is part of Iran's effort to test President Trump's resolve to continue his campaign of maximum pressure against Tehran, create international fear and pressure other countries not to cooperate with Washington's campaign, and create leverage in future negotiations with the United States.
But those motivations may just scratch the surface. Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studied in the seminaries of Qom, Iran, argues that Iran is aiming not only "to disgrace the Saudi royal family" and threaten the monarchy itself, but also "to foster Trump's defeat in the 2020 election." Iran would certainly prefer a Democrat in the White House eager to lift sanctions and return to the nuclear deal. Iran's leaders appear to have calculated that Trump is reluctant, if not unwilling, to take military action against Iran and risk direct conflict, especially during a reelection campaign, and may, therefore, continue to lash out to make Trump look weak on the international stage. Khalaji notes that earlier this month, Amir Mousavi, director of an institute close to the IRGC, said the "Iran dossier can lead to Trump's defeat in the 2020 election."
Iran is clearly pursuing a strategy of escalation and seems to think it can work. Iran's leaders are not dumb: They know the United States is much more powerful and, in a game of escalation, has far greater capabilities. So Iran is playing this game of chicken because it believes Washington does not have the will to out-escalate it.
The United States needs to change Iran's thinking. So far, in response to the attacks on Saudi oil, the United States has imposed new sanctions on Iran's national bank and sovereign wealth fund and announced it will send additional soldiers and enhanced air and missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These steps are important but insufficient to reestablish deterrence against Iran, which seems to think it can strike the world's largest oil processing facility, thus attacking the global economy, on the soil of an American ally without fear of harsh retaliation.
It is not enough for Washington simply to support Saudi military strikes on Iranian targets. Beyond the fact that the Saudis are impressively incompetent at defending themselves, a Saudi reprisal would likely invite further Iranian attacks. Iran fears the United States, not Saudi Arabia, which the Iranians view with particular disdain for being a puppet of the West while at the same time hosting Islam's two holiest sites. A Saudi operation backed by only American political and logistical support would invite further Iranian attacks and do nothing to deter Tehran. But if Washington launches military strikes against Iranian targets, Tehran would be forced to pause and rethink its strategy. Those targets could be proxies in Iraq or Syria, not necessarily inside Iran itself—although if the United States chooses to strike Iran, nonlethal precision strikes on Kharg Island, through which around 90 percent of Iran's oil exports pass, would be effective. If the United States is unwilling to launch strikes, then it must at least use cyber attacks and other forms of sabotage to halt Iran’s escalation.
Iran will back down in the face of American power. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamist regime in Iran has adopted a cautious approach to its foreign and defense policies. The Iranian government is ideological, but it is also pragmatic, willing to weigh costs and benefits rationally while shying away from direct conflict. In 1991, for example, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein brutally crushed a Shiite uprising, Iran did not intervene. Twenty years later, when Bahrain cracked down on Shiite protesters, Iranian leaders abandoned their Shiite brethren, opting instead to hire someone to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington (the operation failed). And over the past several years, Israel has shown a country can strike Iranian targets, killing Iranian soldiers and damaging Iranian facilities, without triggering a war with Iran. Iranian leaders do not want a war and know that any reprisals they take will be met by a much more ferocious Israeli response. That is deterrence by punishment, and the United States has an opportunity now to help get it back with Iran. To do so, however, Washington cannot retaliate once and say "mission accomplished." American leaders need to work with their Middle Eastern allies on a consistent, continuous campaign to use American military power, not just economic sanctions, to deter and, perhaps ultimately, to rollback Iranian aggression.
The "echo chamber" of experts, journalists, and politicians that the Obama administration formed to defend the nuclear deal and promote Iranian interests has argued over the past several days that a strong American response to the attacks on Saudi oil will lead to escalation by Iran, even war. In reality, a strong response, one including American military action, is what is needed to prevent escalation. Otherwise, Iran will keep attacking, and war in the Middle East may come anyway, no matter how much Washington wants out of the region.