Donald's Dilemma: Can He Retaliate to Attack on Saudi Oil Fields Without Starting a War with Iran? | Opinion

In the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 15, explosions ripped through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's massive Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field, bringing the world's top oil exporter to its knees. The strikes took almost 5.75 million barrels of oil per day out of global production—6 percent of the global supply—in a matter of minutes. Oil prices soared, while Saudi officials scrambled to determine the perpetrators.

U.S. condemnation was swift. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately offered their support to the Kingdom, stating that America stood "locked and loaded" and ready to retaliate on its key regional ally's behalf. Pompeo also fingered Iran as the culprit.

The attack was a textbook act of aggression. Imagine if one half of the U.S. oil industry—a much smaller part of American economy—was destroyed by a missile strike from China or Russia. This is the equivalent of what the Saudis just experienced. The U.S. has provided KSA a security umbrella since 1945, but has no treaty obligations to protect it.

So what should the U.S. response look like?

Trump's instincts are against a war. Before the attack, he let go of John Bolton, a hardliner on Iran, and offered direct talks with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Iran's Supreme Leader ruled out any talks subsequent to the strike on Saudi Arabia. A military response, even of the "proportionate" variety, risks escalating the conflict and sending oil prices higher. This could trigger a recession, endanger the already weak global economy, and perhaps harm President Trump's reelection prospects.

To do nothing, however, will likely invite further aggression and call America's alliance commitments across the world into question. Russia, China and North Korea are watching the drama like hawks. Just as during the Cold War, any sign of weakness can encourage them to push against the U.S. ally commitments in the Pacific and in Eastern Europe.

Saudi Arabia was clearly asleep at the switch, and whoever proves to be responsible, it appears that the precision strikes came from the Iranian territory . For many In Washington,that fact and the the sheer level of sophistication demonstrated by the attackers makes a powerful case for blaming Iran of staging the attack, or at the very least providing its proxies with the gear and know-how. This adds to growing concerns that U.S. and allied military bases, including Israeli facilities, airports and ports, and nuclear reactors throughout the region could be the next targets. The Saudi government must act to beef up security measures as it failed to detect the attack on its crown jewels.

The U.S. will not ignore the Iranian challenge. It can support its regional ally through increased intelligence and technology sharing, including new hardware to detect and destroy drones and cruise missiles in future attacks.

But what about a U.S. retaliation?

There are known unknowns. There is no telling how Russia and China would react should the U.S. decide to hit back at Iran. China recently defied U.S. sanctions on Iran, promising to invest $280 billion dollars into its energy sector. And U.S.-China relations are at historic lows, with no end in sight for the ongoing trade war.

While Tehran's actions are detrimental to the oil market and potentially to the global economy, China—the world's top oil importer—is unlikely to support a military retaliation ,given its growing relationship with the Islamic Republic.

Russia, a steadfast partner of Iran, has expressed caution. The Russian foreign ministry called Washington's talk of "tough retaliatory actions against Iran" as "unacceptable" despite Russia's own truculent military actions against Georgia and Ukraine, and in Syria. Meanwhile, never one to miss a good crisis, President Vladimir Putin is hawking Russia's S-300 and S-400 anti-missile systems to the Arab Gulf market, and Moscow will be offering anti-drone technology at the Dubai Air Show.

And how keen are the European allies to back the U.S.? President Trump's strained relationship with European leaders is no secret. Gaining allied support for a military response may prove difficult without a stronger European-U.S. relationship, especially with European leaders trying to salvage elements of Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Trump has thus far shown himself unable to muster the foreign policy savvy to manage such a delicate situation, but making the case before the Security Council, especially if Moscow and Beijing indicate in advance their commitment not to veto an anti-Iran declaration, may go a long way to rebuilding bridges.

President Trump is stuck between a rock and a hard place—leaving Iran's regional sway unchallenged, especially after such a blatant attack, shows weakness that will hardly go unnoticed. America's pre-eminent status is already being challenged from Kyiv to Korea. Unchecked, Iran or its allies and proxies can attack the Saudi oil fields, disrupting further oil production, bringing turmoil to the global economy and putting the global oil supply at risk. Growing Iranian influence in the Middle East could escalate tensions between Iran and Israel which could further draw the U.S. into an engagement in the region.

At the same time, any retaliation by Trump will undoubtedly mean instability and continued uncertainty in the oil markets. He also doubtless fears battlefield casualties in a tough presidential election year. Democratic opponents will be quick to criticize Trump's policy towards Iran as a failure.

In the end, Trump may have no choice. If irrefutable proof shows that Iran was behind the attack, a swift and strong response must be taken by the U.S. and its allies—through diplomatic, economic and military means.

A non-response in the wake of this assault on the world's oil supply and a U.S. ally will send a message to Tehran that it can continue to test the limits and act with impunity. Tehran and the world must know that armed aggression against a neighbor—and the global markets—will not go unpunished. If Iran is indeed responsible for the attack, a powerful retaliatory precision action aimed at Iranian command-and-control and /or oil export capabilities would punish Iran but could still fall short of lighting the fuse for a full-blown war. This may be the best middle-of-the-road option for President Trump.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​