Can the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Defeat Iran?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 6, June 2019 

By William R. Hawkins

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (L) of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There is concern that President Donald Trump’s last minute decision to call off airstrikes against Iran signals weakness in the White House. The Commander in Chief stated, “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not….proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” This explanation will feed critics the next time there is an American strike anywhere, for any reason, that kills enemy troops.

President Trump’s explanation did not address why Iran is shooting at drones (the one downed was not the first targeted). Drones are used to survey Iranian attempts to attack oil tankers, a major threat with the strategic goal of pressuring the international community to lift the sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil which are crippling the Iranian economy. The attack on shipping also threatens the lives of crews. By taking the one drone out of context, its loss seemed too minor to justify retaliation. This was a mistake in analysis that fostered a mistake in principle.

No credence should be given to the principle of  “proportionality” that the President referenced. This concept was devised to impose restraints on strong powers to prevent them from using escalation dominance to deter hostile action. Superiority is so unfair! Leveling the playing field allows challengers like Iran to think they can risk aggressive action even when operating from a position of weakness. Adversaries are always testing boundaries, and militant regimes are driven to take more risks than prudent. And if allowed to continue their violent campaigns, casualties on both sides are likely to mount. The only way to put them in check early is to make it perfectly clear that any gains they contemplate will pale in the face of the ruinous costs they will be forced to pay for bad behavior.

President Trump understandably doesn’t want to get involved in another lengthy land war in the Middle East. But an invasion of Iran is not in the offing. There is an alternative to occupation: the strategy of “punitive expeditions.” The term was used by the British when they policed the north-west frontier of the Raj. It is akin to the “hit and run” warfare of guerrillas, but on the larger scale a major power can muster. Israel’s experience against Hezbollah and Hamas can be instructive. The aim is to demonstrate to enemies that any resort to violence on their part will be hopelessly counter-productive. It would fit President Trump’s tweet, “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met by great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” And such punitive measures are self-contained and do not need exit strategies.

The President has again pledged that Iran will never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and is imposing even tougher sanctions on the militant Tehran regime. And it was reported that the U.S. has used cyber attacks against Iran. So Trump has not gone completely “wobbly” to use Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase from the Falklands War. Unfortunately, there are other parts of the U.S. government where a policy of retreat and defeat has taken hold.

Congress has again struck at American allies who have the courage to stand up to Tehran. On June 20, the same day Iran shot down the drone, the Senate voted to block the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The legislation also seeks to disrupt cooperation among several other allies, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and South Korea. The series of joint resolutions was not just aimed at preventing the sale of hardware to our Arab allies, but also to stop “The proposed transfer of technical data and defense services in order to provide technically qualified personnel to advise and assist the Royal Saudi Air Force in maintenance and training.” This is nothing less than a full court press to disarm the front line states facing Iranian aggression.

This time, the resolutions were sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The last time an anti-Arab resolution was passed by the Senate, the sponsor was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).  In March, the Senate voted 54-46 to cut off U.S. aid to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen. The U.S. started providing intelligence and logical support under President Barack Obama. In 2014, after years of violence and insurgency, Houthi rebels (who are Shiite) seized the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a in an attempt to overthrow the legitimate, internationally recognized government. Iran has trained and equipped the Houthi fighters, including with ballistic missiles and armed drones that have been fired at cities in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, on the outlet of the Red Sea and Suez Canal; a trade route that carries 12% of world seaborne commerce.

You have to be far out in left field not to see the strategic importance of Yemen, or fail to appreciate that in Riyadh we have an ally willing to fight. Unfortunately, not only have Democrats moved into the fever swamp, so have some nominal Republicans. Seven GOP Senators supported the Sanders’ resolution: Mike Lee (UT), Susan Collins (ME); Steve Daines (MT); Jerry Moran (KS); Lisa Murkowski (AK); Rand Paul (KY); and Todd Young (IN). While Collins and Murkowski often vote with the Democrats, the other five rogue Republicans are libertarians who embrace a more classical form of liberalism as isolationists. Sen. Paul is the most prominent leader of this group and on Iran is following the record of his father, retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). The senior Paul was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who opposed imposing sanctions on Iran. To “reduce tensions” with Tehran, both Pauls downplay threats and blame the U.S., Israel or Saudi Arabia for provoking Tehran. To them, even developing ballistic missiles or a nuclear program is purely defensive. If we just left them alone, they’d probably pull back Hezbollah and the other armed groups Iran uses to wage war and terrorism across the region.

The Ron Paul Institute (RPI) has been posting articles that demonstrate what “anti-war” groups often do to discourage domestic support for any action by their own government: they adopt the propaganda of the enemy. On June 20, RPI Director Daniel McAdams appeared on RT, Russia’s English-language state television outlet, accusing the U.S. intelligence community of “stove piping” information about Iran to fuel a media “eager for war.” The Russian media was happy to give him airtime as Moscow is aligned with Iran, and their troops have fought together in Syria. One of the flaws in the Iran nuclear agreement from which President Trump has withdrawn is that in 2020 the UN ban on selling weapons to Iran is lifted and Russia is already talking to Tehran about what they might want to buy.  And without sanctions, Iran could buy alot.

A week earlier, McAdams had interviewed Ron Paul on the claim that since Iran has no motive for disrupting tanker traffic, the attacks must be “false flag” operations by someone else. Yet McAdams also argued that any actions Iran may have taken were provoked by the U.S. Paul quickly agreed that America is the aggressor in the region. Recent RPI postings have also objected to sanctions on Cuba for its support of the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, while denouncing the democratic uprising against the Maduro regime. On the global arena, conflicts are linked. The resolve (or lack) shown by Washington in one region can affect how leaders elsewhere think about what they can do in their area, whether in concert with or against American interests.

On the Menendez resolutions, the rogue Republicans behaved a bit differently. Sen. Daines opposed the resolutions, Murkowski shifted her vote between resolutions, and Lee sat out the massive en bloc vote on 20 resolutions while voting for others. But all the resolutions passed on a “bi-partisan” basis as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) lost his role as Majority Leader to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who held his caucus together with the lone exception of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who did not vote. The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 allows lawmakers to introduce privileged joint resolutions of disapproval of arm sales and force a floor vote outside normal procedure. A legacy of one of the worst decades in American history.

The most disturbing difference between the Sanders and Menendez resolutions is that Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually strong on national security policy, voted with the Democrats and libertarians. At a June 5 press conference with Senators Menendez, Paul.  Young, Chris Murphy (D-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Jack Reed (D-RI), Sen. Graham said, “While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia.” He is peevishly upset about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an opponent of the Saudi government who wrote columns for the Washington Post. It is alleged that the Crown Prince knew of the assassination plot that played out in Turkey. Yet, his murder does not make Khashoggi a martyr since his cause was inimical to ours.

Gutting Riyadh’s defenses in the face of Iranian threats is supposed to punish it for killing Khashoggi. But not only does the punishment not fit the crime, it puts at risk American security interests which are the proper focus of U.S. policy. To that end, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently visiting Saudi Arabia and the UAE to discuss concerted action against Iran. Yet, at the same time, the anti-Arab coalition doubled down on its efforts to disarm Saudi Arabia. On June 25, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to send to the floor the ‘‘Saudi Arabia False Emergencies Act’’ sponsored by Menendez, Leahy, Paul, Murphy and Graham. The bill would restrict the waiver authority in the Arms Export Control Act that a president can use to provide arms to an ally in an emergency (like a war) without first getting a Congressional review.

The Democratic House is expected to pass the Menendez resolutions as it did the Sanders resolution; and it will be “bi-partisan” again due to libertarian GOP support. The White House has already said it will veto Menendez as it did Sanders. Thankfully, there are still enough Republicans who understand the nature of the world to uphold the veto. But foreign capitals will note that recent events are casting into doubt whether the United States can reliably muster the unity and will needed to act decisively in a contentious, often violent world.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. JPR Status: Op-ed.