By attacking Saudi Aramco, Iran wanted to force the US to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal. It failed.
The futility of Iran’s attempts to force the US to return to the nuclear deal was evident at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where US President Donald Trump reiterated his commitment to sanctions as long as Tehran’s “menacing behavior continues.” His words were followed by action when the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and National Development Fund.
It is easy to forget that only a week before, many commentators had claimed not only that talks between Iran and the Trump administration were imminent, but that these talks would likely lead to the lifting of some sanctions. At the time, France was running a play on Iran’s behalf, which involved extending Tehran a $15 billion line of credit, in return for Iran apparently resuming compliance with the nuclear deal it had violated precisely to pressure the Europeans.
It was against this backdrop that Iran attacked Saudi Arabia, in an escalation which aimed at forcing the US’ hand.
For months, Iran has been trying desperately to get American sanctions lifted, and to force the US to walk back its decision to leave the JCPOA. It enlisted European mediators to work on the US president, but they were ineffective. Iran is desperate to resume oil sales, which had plummeted since the US’ departure from the JCPOA. The $15 billion credit line proposed by the French was to be guaranteed by Iranian oil, the equivalent of 700,000 barrels per day of future oil sales. In other words, it was a way to allow Iran to “pre-sell” its oil, all while luring the US back into the JCPOA framework. Perhaps as important as the cash windfall was the goal of entangling the Trump administration in talks and preventing future pressure.
Although waiting to see if Trump is replaced by a pro-JCPOA Democratic Party presidential candidate initially seemed like a good strategy to Iran, the expiration of oil waivers in May changed Tehran’s strategic considerations. The expiration of oil waivers meant that Iran could face five more years of crippling sanctions. The Iranians also faced the prospect of Trump shredding the JCPOA once and for all at the United Nations, depriving Iran of promised expiration dates on UN weapons restrictions.
The Iranians therefore moved to another strategy to try and pressure the US, with the belief they could influence Trump’s chances at reelection.
This strategy was put into action shortly after the waivers expired, when Iranian-led militias in Iraq launched an attack on a major Saudi pipeline. Iran then sabotaged and hijacked oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf. Coupled with Iran’s nuclear violations, these actions panicked the Europeans into scurrying to the US to present Iran’s terms. However, it failed to influence the US position.
Iran then upped the ante by attacking Saudi Arabia from its own territory, believing it would force Trump into a corner. By targeting Saudi Arabia’s oil production, Iran thought it could unsettle global markets and raise oil prices, causing an economic downturn which would hurt the US president politically. Tehran calculated that Trump would then be forced into a lose-lose choice which would harm his prospect for reelection. On the one hand, if Washington retaliated militarily, oil prices would increase further and harm Trump’s bid for reelection. On the other hand, if Trump capitulated and accepted Iran’s terms, he would be reneging on one of his signature policies, the withdrawal from the JCPOA.
In other words, Iran wanted to impose the binary of the Obama years: either the JCPOA or war. To that end, Tehran recognized that the proponents of the JCPOA in the US and their communications infrastructure would amplify this binary choice - promoting Iranian blackmail and heightening an overall sense of crisis while the Europeans present sanctions relief and a return to the JCPOA framework as the only alternative to military escalation.
Not only was there no panicked American response, but, despite an initial brief and modest spike in the price of oil, the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia also failed to put a dent in the global energy markets - Aramco quickly restored its oil production and crude prices stabilized within a couple of days. In fact, this has been a key Iranian weakness: all of their sabotage attacks, including the high-risk direct attack from their own territory, have not been able to seriously or sustainably influence oil prices or supply.
Far from capitulating, the Trump administration strategically sanctioned Iran’s Central Bank and National Development Fund, shooting down the French proposal of extending a line of credit to Iran in the process. Even as the French resumed their efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and the Iranian president at the UN, the US made it clear that any meeting would not come with sanctions relief. To underscore this point, following the president’s UNGA speech, the US slapped another round of sanctions on Chinese firms for shipping Iranian oil. Incidentally, even after these latest sanctions were announced, oil prices fell.
The Iranian gambit, in other words, failed. The question now is whether Iran doubles down and stages more attacks on oil infrastructure. Only now, there is a higher risk for Tehran. The US is deploying to Saudi Arabia a Patriot missile battery with 200 support personnel and four Sentinel RADARs (with two more Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on Prepare to Deploy Orders). As a result, there will be more eyes on any major launches from Iran and more overall preparedness. With no more room for deniability, especially for a major attack — which is what Iran would need — the retaliatory options also increase.
By rejecting to pay Iran to negotiate and declining to take the bait of immediate military retaliation, the Trump administration has put itself in a position to do what the Iranians fear most: take its maximum pressure campaign to the UN and invoke the snapback mechanism in UN Security Council Resolution 2231. There are signs the Trump State Department might be considering this option. Recently US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the UN should act to prevent the arms embargo lifted by the JCPOA from expiring. The way to do so is the snapback mechanism. The Europeans might still balk. But the US is in a place to influence them, especially if Iran takes additional steps to violate the deal, as it has done recently.
The Trump administration’s response to Iran’s gambit underscored the fact that the Islamic Republic’s blackmail will not succeed in reviving the corpse of the JCPOA. Now it’s time to bury that deal for good.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.