EMET

Five Options Trump Should Consider to Counter Iran

Iranian President Rouhani has invited countries in the Middle East to join what he called the security coalition of HOPE — a rough acronym for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor.  Rouhani has described this as a coalition that “will secure freedom of navigation, flow of energy and the regional stability in the Persian Gulf.”  He has also suggested that Iran should serve as one of the leaders of this coalition because “Iran during the last four decades fought against terrorism unequivocally…Iran is a country that has brought peace in the region.”

Coming from Iran, this proposal is rich in irony. 

(October 10, 2019 / Newsmax)

Iran, of course, is the main terror sponsoring nation that is interrupting the freedom of navigation, the flow of energy and regional stability, in the Persian Gulf and in the Bab el Mandab.  In the latest attack, the Iranians used drones and missiles to knock out about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production.  Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities took 5.7 million barrels per day of production offline and pushed oil prices (briefly) 18% higher.  Although Iran’s Yemeni proxy, the Houthis, claimed credit for the attack on Saudi Arabia, the evidence was so strong that Iran was behind it that even the Western European leaders of France, Germany, and the UK, all of whom who continue to be part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, were forced to acknowledge Iran’s complicity.

What this means is that if Iran seriously wanted to promote freedom of navigation, the flow of energy and regional stability, it doesn’t need to form a coalition.  It just needs to stop its aggression and promotion of terrorism through the Middle East (and worldwide). 

Unfortunately, we know the Iranian regime is never going to do that.  But, recognizing that the U.S. does have a national interest in keeping the oil and natural gas lanes in the Middle East flowing to the U.S. and the rest of the world – to prevent a major economic downturn – the question then becomes, what should the U.S. do to disincentivize future Iranian aggression, which may be imminent?

So far, President Trump has responded by expanding the list of sanctions the U.S. has put on Iran, all part of the “maximum pressure” campaign, which has pushed the Iranian economy into a recession.  Further, the U.S. plans to bar senior Iranian officials and their immediate family from entering the United States as immigrants or non-immigrants.  The President has also sent U.S. troops to protect Saudi Arabia, and has been promoting the idea of an Arab NATO, or a U.S. led multinational maritime effort, originally called Operation Sentinel, to ensure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf region, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Oman.  

All of these are good ideas.  But more actions may be necessary.  Here are five other options for the U.S.

First, the U.S. could diplomatically engage the Iranian regime. 

Second, the U.S. could act to sabotage the Iranian regime.  For example, it could unleash another cyberattack, along the lines of Stuxnet, or, more recently, its’ alleged cyberattack against a spy group tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Or, the CIA, or other U.S. forces, might support and/or train Iranian dissident groups.

Third, the U.S. could invade Iran and oust the Iranian regime, a la the 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Fourth, the U.S. could conduct some sort of lesser military action against the Iranian regime.  A good example of this was Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, which dissuaded Iran from challenging the U.S. Navy or from targeting oil shipping for many years.  In retaliation for Iran’s earlier mining of the Persian Gulf, which resulted in a U.S. ship being damaged and many of its crew being injured, the U.S. Navy destroyed two Iranian surveillance platforms, sank two of their ships, and severely damaged another.  In addition to going after the Iranian navy, other possibilities suggested include the U.S. specifically targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the Kharg Island terminal, through which more than 90% of Iranian oil exports go.  The U.S. could conduct these attacks in the open, or with official deniability, i.e., in the “gray zone”, as does Iran.

Fifth, the U.S. could attack some of the Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East.  For example, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian backed forces in Syria, or Iranian backed forces in Iraq.  Israel frequently conducts these kinds of attacks as well.  In each case, Israel does so to enforce its red lines.  For example, in Syria, the Israeli red line is that Assad and his Iranian-backed allies must honor a decades-old agreement that sets out a demilitarized zone along the frontier and limits the number of forces each side can deploy within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the zone.  Once again, the U.S. could do this openly or in the gray zone.

In my view, several of these actions may already be eliminated.  Diplomacy seems counterproductive at this juncture, as “Iranians negotiate only after defeating their enemies… Signaling a desire to talk before being victorious is, in Iranian eyes, a sign of weakness or lack of will to win.”  Also, a full scale invasion of Iran makes little sense, as we have seen in Iraq how expensive, in both blood and treasure, it can be.  And a more limited U.S. attack against Iranian proxies also seems pointless, as it is well known that “Iran is willing to sacrifice Arab Shiites but not Persian Shiites.” 

This leaves just two viable options.  The U.S. could sabotage the Iranian regime, and/or the U.S. could conduct a limited strike against the Iranian regime.  In that order, I would recommend them to President Trump.

About the author  ⁄ Adam Turner

Adam Turner is the general counsel & legislative affairs director for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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