Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
While the international community works to determine who is responsible for the most recent attack on Saudi energy facilities, the US government has already pointed the finger at Iran.
Despite initial claims of responsibility by the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed the blame squarely on Iran and said the attacks did not originate in Yemen.
Though Iran denies responsibility for the attacks, Saudi Arabia issued a statement Sunday that the attack “either came from Iraq or from Iran.” If Iran is found to be the culprit, it would make Saturday’s attack just the latest in a series of escalatory attacks by the regime against the United States, our allies and our interests.
This escalation notably comes days before President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. The White House has not ruled out a potential meeting between the two leaders. If a meeting happens, either in New York or down the road, its substantive success will depend on Trump acknowledging, and being willing to address, some of his self-inflicted policy wounds.
Bad boy for life
With analysts reviewing the origin of Saturday’s attacks on Saudi Arabia, one thing is already clear: Iran is implementing its own maximum pressure campaign to persuade the United States to lift sanctions and give Iran access to sorely needed revenue. While the United States relies on sanctions to punish assessed illegal Iranian activities – including its support for terrorism and renewed nuclear activities – Iran is employing violent tactics to implement its agenda.
Iran recently stepped up its terrorizing activities in key international waterways, including when it diverted a British-flagged oil tanker to one of its ports, a move that British authorities said was illegal. Around the same time, US forces destroyed an Iranian drone that came close to the USS Boxer, and while Iran denied the attack, the United States blamed Iran for an attack on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran also supports militia groups in countries such as Iraq and Syria that threaten the United States and allies such as Israel. The administration announced this spring that it had new intelligence indicating “a heightened risk that Iranian forces or proxies were considering an imminent attack on American forces or interests in the Persian Gulf or Iraq.” Some foreign counterparts voiced skepticism over this latest announcement, but the intelligence community stated publicly in January that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq remain the primary threat to US personnel in Iraq, and they expected that threat to increase.
The US intelligence community also assessed that Iran will continue to develop and maintain its terrorist capabilities to deter or retaliate against its perceived enemies.
As the largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Iranian regime has a long-standing record of supporting violence and in the past year alone has been accused of plotting an assassination in Denmark and a bomb attack in Paris. Iran denied involvement in both plots.
With advanced cyber capabilities, Iran poses a significant threat in the digital space as well. It has the proven intent and capability – including against Saudi Aramco – to launch cyberattacks globally. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI warned in June that Iran has stepped up its cyberattacks against the United States amid rising tensions.
In other words, Iran’s malign activity matrix isn’t thinning out – arguably it’s expanding.
Don’t encourage bad behavior
While Iran’s record of illegal activities predates Trump – and will likely outlast his time in office – his policy decisions have exacerbated tensions with Iran. His decision to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization was met with warnings by the Pentagon that the designation could endanger US troops.
His decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has not only led Iran to ramp up attacks against the United States and its allies, but it has also unnecessarily reintroduced a nuclear threat at a time when we are facing so many other threats. With Iran restarting activities that were banned under the Iran nuclear deal, such as breaching a limit on their stockpile of low enriched uranium and enriching uranium at a higher level than permitted, US national security experts have to contend with the added concern of a resurgent Iranian nuclear threat.
Absent any real off-ramp for Iran, tensions and attacks will likely continue. This could impact US national security in several ways. Iran props up proxies throughout the Middle East, including by supplying them with advanced drone technology, weapons and intelligence.
A UN panel of experts concluded Iran has supplied drone technology to the Houthis in Yemen, and that’s having impacts beyond Yemen’s borders. The Houthis have launched attacks into Saudi Arabia this year, and they aren’t the only Iranian proxies attacking the kingdom. US intelligence officials assessed that an attack in May on a Saudi oil-pumping station was launched by an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. Iran has also helped Lebanese Hezbollah improve its capabilities.
A broad range of soft targets – including energy facilities – still exists in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region. After Pompeo blamed Iran for Saturday’s attack, Iran warned, “Everybody should know that all American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles.” We’ve already sent more military assets to the region and conducted cyber operations against Iran recently, but we run the risk of getting into an endless military buildup if we don’t identify a credible way to reduce tensions.
New York minute
So what should the Trump administration do? Holding Iran accountable for its unacceptable actions is a core component of any coherent Iran strategy, but to date the administration has suffered from self-inflicted policy wounds and a lack of a thoughtful strategy to get Iran back to the negotiating table.
Whether it’s a Trump-Rouhani meeting in New York or private discussions between US and Iranian experts to lay out the parameters for meaningful negotiations, the national security team should not miss the forest for the trees: Iran is a bad actor, but by making a series of policy missteps the administration has aggravated those threats. Removing any one of those threats, starting with nuclear ones, should be a priority. Doing so will require the President to do something out of character – admit that he was wrong about withdrawing from the nuclear deal without any realistic plan to renegotiate it.