The United States has openly accused Iran for the drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery. Now the question is what will it do in response? The attacks have not affected the sole surviving super power. On the contrary, the US will benefit the most from the hike in oil prices, which has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the largest oil producing country.
There is a temptation for the US to let the attacks slip into history. The US has formed an anti-Iran alliance in which Saudi Arabia is a key player. Doing nothing would put the coalition into question. Failing to respond to an Iranian attack on a vital Saudi facility could help Iran increase its power throughout the region.
Donald Trump’s inclination has been to avoid initiating direct military action against Iran but applying economic pressure. He has maneuvered to minimize and halt active military engagement. Military action would not only contradict the US strategy, but also endanger other alliance members.
An alternative option would be to introduce new sanctions, but there are two problems with this move. First, sanctions do not have the psychological impact and second, the US has already imposed sanctions on Iran and any more sanctions would have only limited effects.
The US could impose a blockade on Iranian ports and close of Strait of Hormuz. This strategy has three weaknesses. First, a large naval force of multiple carrier battle groups would have to be deployed for a potentially unlimited time. Second, the fleet could come under attack from Iranian missiles. To counter this, anti-missile air attacks as well as defensive measures would be needed, creating a second potentially costly dimension to this operation. Finally, such a blockade is by definition without a terminal point. If Iran does not fold under the pressure, the blockade could continue indefinitely, since ending it without a successful outcome would be seen as a defeat.
Another possible response would be to launch air strikes against Iran. The most appropriate target would be the factories producing drones and cruise missiles, along with storage facilities and so on. However, the biggest problem will be getting accurate intelligence. Acting on poor information could result in an Iranian strike on US forces or another sensitive site under informal American protection.
As regards an air campaign, history has shown that these tend to take much longer than expected and sometimes fail altogether. Any US attempt to eliminate Iran’s strike capability can be costly and hidden Iranian missiles can attack regional targets. An air campaign can go on indefinitely without yielding the desired results.
As for sending in ground troops, the US military fully deployed can defeat the Iranian military and take terrain, but to hold it against a hostile militia would create interminable conflict with casualties that cannot be sustained. Iran is a big and rugged country, with a population of 82 million people, more than twice as large as Iraq or Afghanistan. And the idea that US troops would be greeted as liberators is mere fantasy.
The US has been concerned about Iran’s expanding political influence, which also creates potential targets that are of high value to Iran. Hitting these targets would be less daunting as compared to attacks on Iran. Iran has its own or proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It has invested a great deal of time, resources and risk in creating these forces that are now holding territory in these countries.
Doing nothing could well destroy the anti-Iran bloc the US has worked hard to create. The likely but not certain answer to this problem will be a symbolic retaliation. The problem with retaliations, however, is that they get out of hand