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September 24 2019

mr-absentia

The attacks on Saudi Arabia merit a firm response - Abqaiq the powder keg

«Consider the cost of recent Western restraint. In May Iran hit four tankers in the United Arab Emirates; in June it struck two more tankers in the Strait of Hormuz; later it took down an American drone. Mr Trump was prepared to retaliate only after that last aggression—and even then he pulled back at the last minute. The attack on September 14th was vastly more consequential. The president has said that America is “locked and loaded”. In Tehran they are watching to see whether he is all talk, as they are in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and in countries whose security depends on the idea that America will turn up.

If any nuclear negotiations are to succeed, Iran must pay a price for Abqaiq. America wants a more sweeping agreement than the original one, but only the pragmatic faction in Tehran, weakened by America’s approach, will make such a deal. While Iran can hit out again, the hardliners will have a veto over any talks. If America is seen as a paper tiger, they will be able to argue that Iran need not give much ground. On the contrary, they will say that their country should pile pressure on America by accelerating its nuclear programme. America and its allies therefore need to convince Iran that it cannot use violence to get its way.

The first stage of a response is to establish precisely where Saturday’s attack originated and who planned it. America must share this publicly, partly because Mr Trump’s word alone does not carry weight, but also to build a coalition and help stifle the objections of Iran’s apologists. Evidence against Iran could pave the way for new sanctions. Mr Trump has promised more—though America is already doing pretty much all it can. He should be backed by the Europeans, who need to understand that peace depends on deterring Iran, and China, which imports over 9m b/d of oil, much of it from the Middle East.

That is not all. If the Abqaiq attack is the work of Iran’s revolutionary guards, they should face direct consequences. That involves covert operations, by cyber-units that can disrupt their communications and finances; and air strikes on guard units outside Iran in Syria. Ideally, these would be carried out by a coalition, but if need be, America and Saudi Arabia should act alone. The risk of escalation should not be ignored, but Iran does not want all-out war any more than Saudi Arabia and America do. Israel frequently launches air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq without provoking an Iranian escalation.»

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