On blaming Trump for Iran’s aggression against Saudi Arabia

It has become a standard talking point among leftists and Democrats to blame President Trump for Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. This Washington Post column by David Ignatius provides a good example of the genre. In his opening sentence, Igantius claims that Trump “start[ed] the fight” with Iran.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this line of argument. As Jeane Kirkpatrick observed decades ago, the left always blames America first. When we also consider the blind hatred of Trump on the part of leftists, Democrats, and others, the effort to blame the president for Iran’s aggression seems over-determined.

Is there merit to the claim that Trump is to blame for Iran’s attack on the Saudis? I don’t think so.

The case for blaming Trump rests, at the threshold, on the premise that his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal caused Iran to attack Saudi Arabia (and to engage in other aggressive behavior). But Iran was acting aggressively throughout the Middle East before Trump withdrew from the deal.

Iran’s military (along with that of its proxies) was active in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Indeed, its aggression in these areas may have been one reason Trump decided to reimpose sanctions.

Moreover, Iran’s attack on the Saudis can (and probably should) be viewed as an outgrowth and extension of the war in Yemen, a war that predates the Trump presidency. The Saudis are fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and doing so quite aggressively. The Houthis, with Iranian assistance, have carried the war to Saudi Arabia via drone attacks, of which the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities is the most dramatic example.

In short, the Iran-Houthi vs. Saudi Arabia conflict has a life of its own. Where’s the evidence that it wouldn’t be proceeding as it is if the U.S. were still in the nuclear deal?

But even if the Iran-Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia were the proximate result of Trump’s tough approach to Iran, Trump would not be to blame for the attacks. The U.S. had the legal right to pull out of the deal (which was never ratified as a treaty). Our decision to do so doesn’t justify a drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia. Nor does the imposition of economic sanctions provide such justification.

Finally, Iran’s aggression against the Saudis, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Trump’s actions caused it, does not mean pulling out of the nuclear deal was bad policy. I would argue that, if anything, Iran’s belligerence demonstrates the wisdom of pulling out. A regime that would launch an unprovoked missile attack on a neighbor is not one on whose promises we should rely, nor one whose economy we should promote.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Iran would be somewhat less aggressive if we were still a party to an agreement that props up its economy. Bribing (in effect) the mullahs to confine their aggression to countries like Lebanon and Syria, while leaving Saudi Arabia alone, is bad policy.

Eventually, this sort of appeasement will likely lead to new aggression, including against an arch-enemy like Saudi Arabia. And when that aggression comes, it will be all the more fearsome for the U.S. having helped revive Iran’s economy.

David Ignatius’s Washington Post column on the subject concludes by gloating that Trump has boxed himself in when it comes to Iran. Trump doesn’t want war, Ignatius notes, but Iran can’t be cowed by the U.S. into eschewing provocations to war.

Maybe. However, I don’t see Trump as boxed in for long. He can keep the lid on things for a while, get reelected, and then, if Iran doesn’t change its ways, apply the military hammer.