(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Iran is convinced that it is winning the confrontation with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. This view will likely encourage Iran to launch more attacks against its neighbors. It is crucial that Washington and its partners correct this misapprehension and restore deterrence before more mayhem ensues.
President Donald Trump insists that American restraint is “a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!” But, as Senator Lindsey Graham suggests, the Iranian leaders will probably misinterpret the lack of a robust kinetic response to last weekend’s massive attacks on key Saudi oil installations as weakness.
The attack, which temporarily knocked out more than 50% of Saudi oil output, demonstrated that Iran has concluded that momentum is on its side, and that it has little to fear from paper tigers unable or unwilling to seriously fight back.
Four months ago, Iran abandoned the policy of trying to wait out the Trump administration and its “maximum pressure” campaign and seek sanctions relief from Europe in favor of a carefully calibrated intensifying series of low-level attacks. Tehran reckoned that, instead, a policy of strategic recklessness, which it dubbed “maximum resistance,” was the only hope to gain breathing room from suffocating sanctions.
Iran gambled that by creating a massive crisis it could generate diplomatic momentum and coerce other countries—most notably European, Arab and Asian states—to compel Washington to ease the pressure on Tehran.
At first, its provocations involved attacks on shipping, whether using mines against tankers or seizing vessels outright, and other low-intensity, and often deniable, actions. These were designed to slowly generate an atmosphere of chaos and demonstrate that if Iran cannot sell oil, “no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.”
At no stage has there been any military response Though, judging by its systematic provocations, Iran was certainly seemed willing to absorb painful blows from, for example, cruise missile strikes against its military assets, the blows never came. Even when Iran downed an unmanned U.S. drone on June 20, Trump called off planned retaliatory airstrikes.
Instead, Tehran watched in amazement as a series of political and diplomatic developments seemed to indicate startling and overwhelming success. Trump repeatedly offering meetings with Iranian officials without preconditions. He even seemed open to a French proposal to extend Iran $15 billion in credit and other forms of sanctions relief to facilitate the talks.
The UAE resumed diplomatic contacts with Iran and announced a major drawdown in southern Yemen, where an Arab coalition has for four years been in a war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In private, even Saudi officials were quietly muttering unease about U.S. leadership on this issue.
Best of all from Iran’s point of view, Trump fired his national security advisor, John Bolton, viewed by Tehran as the very embodiment of a U.S. military threat.
Given all that, it’s no wonder Iran has concluded it gambled correctly that Trump wouldn’t risk a conflict before the 2020 election, and that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t act without active American support.
Washington and Riyadh are acting wisely in not rushing into a military response to the latest provocation. Iran might welcome a limited strike that could feed the sense of uncontrolled chaos it is seeking to cultivate.
However, it is obvious that deterrence must be restored in order to prevent additional and worse Iranian assaults. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia need to marshal evidence that Iran was responsible for the latest attack and convince the rest of the international community that the Islamic Republic is endangering not only on Saudi Arabia but global energy supplies and markets.
The objective would be to assemble a robust coalition willing to approve of, or participate in, substantial reprisals for any additional Iranian mischief. It is worth trying—against inevitable Chinese and Russian reluctance—to secure a strongly worded Security Council resolution authorizing such a response.
Iran must not be allowed to mistake this calm and deliberate reaction for weakness or fecklessness. The regime in Tehran must be made to realize that it has overstepped and blundered, exhausted international patience, and set itself up for a bitter dénouement.
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Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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