The Irish Times view on Iran-US tensions: on the brink

Donald Trump’s response to an attack on saudi oilfields – tightening sanctions on Iran – is self-defeating. But military action would be catastrophic.

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, about 60km  southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province last SAturday.  Drone attacks sparked fires at two Saudi Aramco oil facilities, the interior ministry said. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, about 60km southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province last SAturday. Drone attacks sparked fires at two Saudi Aramco oil facilities, the interior ministry said. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

A series of elaborate suspected drone attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia has brought Iran and the United States dangerously close to military confrontation. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been fighting a civil war against Saudi-backed forces, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which will severely curtail Saudi oil production for at least a few weeks. But US secretary of state Mike Pompeo blamed Tehran directly for launching “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply”.

Pompeo’s almost immediate identification of Iran as the culprit must be treated with caution, given his visceral, at times irrational, hostility to the Iranian regime and the previous failures of American intelligence. At the same time, it is impossible to dismiss the idea of Iranian involvement. If the drones came from Houthi-held territory in Yemen, it is inconceivable that such a sophisticated operation, targeting one of the world’s most significant strategic energy installations, could have been carried out without some help from the Houthis’ Iranian sponsors. The same goes for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq – another possible source for the attack.

If Iran was responsible, the attack would suggest a major escalation in its campaign to ratchet up regional tensions, which has mostly consisted until now of the seizure of foreign-owned oil tankers. It would also imply that Iranian hardliners, who baulked at the idea of a meeting between Donald Trump and President Hassan Rouhani and would see benefits in provoking Trump into retaliation, are growing increasingly influential. Yet the case for restraint is overwhelming. Iran’s actions in recent weeks show how Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure”, which was designed to bring an isolated and weakened Tehran pleading for a compromise, has had the opposite effect. The Iranian leadership appears to believe it has little to lose any more.

So far this week, Trump’s response has been limited to further tightening sanctions on Iran. That’s self-defeating. But military action would be catastrophic.

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