Iran Is Testing the Trump Administration

Tehran Thinks There Are No Rules, No Limits, and Anything Goes

Iranian soldiers march during an annual military parade in Tehran, September 2018 Tasnim News Agency / Reuters

On September 14, drones and cruise missiles struck Saudi Arabia’s most important oil-processing facility, at Abqaiq. The attacks don’t just threaten the global oil supply, of which Abqaiq accounts for roughly five percent. They pose a critical test for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Iran has chosen to act very brazenly with these strikes. If there is no consequence for that choice, the Islamic Republic will be even more emboldened. Worse, an ineffectual response will send a message internationally that there are no rules, no limits, and anything goes.     

The day of the strikes, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lost no time in attributing them to the Iranians. The Saudi Ministry of Defense has displayed remnants of the drones and cruise missiles used—all Iranian made—and the ministry’s spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said the attack was “unquestionably sponsored by Iran.”

That choice of words left vague whether the Iranians had conducted the attack themselves from Iranian territory. But U.S. officials have said in background statements that the cruise missiles were launched from Iranian bases. Pompeo declared the strikes an “act of war”—certainly implying that the United States must do something about them.

So far, the president has responded with his instrument of choice: sanctions. His administration has called its approach to Iran to date “maximum pressure,” though it might more accurately be called “maximum economic pressure.” Now Washington needs to ask itself whether this approach matches the current test.

Motive and Opportunity

If the Iranians attacked Saudi Arabia’s most important oil facility directly, from their own territory, they have crossed a threshold. They have also acted in a manner completely out of character. The Islamic Republic typically works in the region through proxies, allowing for plausible deniability. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have denied that Iran was behind the recent strikes. But the attackers clearly used Iranian weapons, including short-range drones that could not have reached Abqaiq if

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