It’s reassuring that President Trump says that he’s in “no rush” to respond militarily to last weekend’s devastating air attacks on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities — attacks Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo blamed on Iran. On Sunday the president had tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded,” waiting only for Saudi Arabia to identify the “culprit.”
Now he seems to be trying to calm the winds of war, even as he considers possible military responses and consults with the Saudis. Caution is appropriate. The goal isn’t simply to avoid war between the U.S. and Iran but to prevent the bitter Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which already is playing out violently in Yemen, from engulfing the region in war.
Saturday’s attack on the Saudi oil installations was an outgrowth of the Yemen conflict, in which the Saudis have supported the internationally recognized government while Iran has backed the Houthi rebels. (The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but some analysts doubt that they have the resources necessary to carry out such an elaborate operation.)
Trump has sent maddeningly mixed messages about relations with Iran. Despite his repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated during the Obama administration and his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of crushing economic sanctions, the president has expressed an off-and-on interest in dialogue with Iran.
In any such dialogue, the U.S. should make it clear to Iran that attacks on oil installations are not only an act of war, they’re also a threat to global security and the international economy. But if the Iranians are willing to change their behavior, the U.S. should be willing to relax a “maximum pressure” campaign that has had minimal effect in bringing Iran to the bargaining table. Above all, the top US goal should be to stop this regional rivalry from spinning out of control.