(Bloomberg Opinion) — Following the Houthi attack on Saturday on Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facility, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an obvious and necessary point: Blame Iran.
It is obvious because the Houthi rebels in Yemen lack the drones, missiles or expertise to attack infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia. In 2018, a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen examined the debris of missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen into Saudi Arabia and concluded there was high probability the weapons were shipped in components from Iran. As one Hezbollah commander told two George Washington University analysts in 2016: “Who do you think fires Tochka missiles into Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Houthis in their sandals, it’s us.” Hezbollah, of course, is a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Pompeo’s response is necessary because, historically, Iran pretends to seek peace as it makes war. This is why it sent Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to France last month to plead with the world’s great economic powers as it escalated its proxy war against Saudi Arabia. Iranian diplomacy depends on its adversaries treating the aggression of its proxies as distinct from its statecraft.
What is surprising is that Pompeo’s remarks have already drawn fire from leading Democrats. Even Senator Chris Murphy’s more nuanced view (or at least as much nuance as is possible in a tweet) gets the big picture wrong — and it’s worth dwelling on why.
Murphy starts by lamenting the secretary’s “irresponsible simplification” of “Houthis=Iran.” He is smart enough to acknowledge that Iran “is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor.” He then strikes a note of naivete. “The Saudis and Houthis are at war,” he tweeted. “The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back.”
This kind of neutralism is regrettable for a few reasons. To start, the sheer scale and devastation of Saturday’s attack (the Saudis estimate that half of their oil production has been taken out) counts as an escalation. The effects are not limited to Yemen or the Persian Gulf. The world economy will suffer.
And while Murphy is correct to criticize Saudi brutality, as he has in the past, the two sides in this regional conflict are not equivalent. Iran is a revisionist power, challenging the status quo throughout the Levant and the Gulf. The U.S. and its allies are trying to keep Iran in check. The U.S. has tried to pressure Saudi Arabia to de-escalate, whereas Iran is pushing the Houthis to dig in.
Fortunately, Murphy and other Democrats will not decide how to respond to this latest aggression. This decision falls to President Donald Trump. And now is a good time to re-evaluate his recent push to negotiate with Iran. The president could start by reaffirming Pompeo’s 12 conditions for sanctions relief for Iran. Last month, Trump pared them down to three, narrowly related to its nuclear program. Indeed, the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia shows just how important it is that any future deal commit the Iranian regime to ending its adventures in the Middle East.
Trump also now needs to reconsider military options to deter future escalations. As I have reported, U.S. intelligence agencies have mapped the precise locations of Iranian bases and commanders in Yemen and the Middle East. If Trump wants to respond militarily without attacking Iranian territory, he has many targets outside the country.
If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies. This is exactly the strategy — and the consequences — followed and paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in his second term. During and after the negotiations for the nuclear deal, Iran armed and trained its proxies in Syria and later in Yemen. The Middle East is now paying for these mistakes. Trump would be a fool to repeat them.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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