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How to Respond to Iran

With its recent attacks on Saudi oil installations, Iran is directly challenging both America’s dominance in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia’s role as the world’s oil supplier of last resort. And merely tightening US sanctions against Iran will most likely provoke, rather than deter, another Iranian attack.

PRINCETON – Early on the morning of September 14, drones struck two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, affecting close to half of the output of the world’s top oil exporter – 5% of the global supply. The attacks – claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, but widely attributed to Iran – amount to a watershed moment for Middle Eastern politics and global energy markets, as they directly challenge both America’s dominance in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia’s role as the world’s oil supplier of last resort.

Iran’s immediate motivation for the attack was the suffocating economic sanctions that US President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed since withdrawing last year from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the current tensions are rooted in regional power dynamics that date back to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That spectacular failure drove Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, to signal an end to nearly eight decades of American hegemony in the Gulf.

The United States is exhausted from its Middle East wars, particularly because its overwhelming military advantage has not translated into enduring political influence. But America’s retreat has left a strategic vacuum, which the region’s most influential actors are vying to fill.

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