Seven Questions That Need Answers Before Any Attack on Iran

President Trump’s threats of retaliation for strikes on Saudi oil facilities seem premature.

An Iranian flag
Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

President Donald Trump says the United States is “locked and loaded” to retaliate against whoever struck Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries on Saturday. But before American forces rain “fire and fury” on Iran, some urgent questions must be answered.

Are we quite sure that Iran is the culprit?

Iranian culpability certainly seems the most plausible explanation for the refinery attack. But given the utter untrustworthiness of both the Trump presidency and Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi government, it seems wise to demand certainty, not plausibility. How confident are U.S. analysts that the attack was ordered from Tehran, rather than by an Iranian proxy acting for its own motives?

Where’s the treaty obligation?

The United States and Saudi Arabia have committed themselves to many agreements, formal and informal, since the famed meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in February 1945. Yet the two countries have never quite bound themselves to an unconditional mutual-defense treaty in the way that, say, the United States and Japan have done. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States made clear that an attack on Saudi Arabia would draw a U.S. response—but that decision was based on the perception at the time that U.S. interests were at stake, not on any treaty duty.

Has Congress spoken?

President George W. Bush twice sought and obtained congressional authorization to use force, once against al-Qaeda, then against Iraq. President George H. W. Bush sought and got congressional authorization to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Where’s Trump’s authorization to attack Iran? An attack on Iran would not be a police action in a failed state, such as the U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s; it would not be low-risk in terms of American lives and money, such as President Bill Clinton’s operations in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. An attack on Iran in defense of Saudi Arabia could—and very likely would—rapidly escalate into a big war across a range of battlefields, including cyber, all over the world. Starting such a war obviously exceeds any historic or reasonable definition of inherent presidential power. Congress must be asked for its authorization.

What’s the national interest?

Armed aggression against U.S. friends and partners does not in itself demand a U.S. response. India has been a target of frequent armed aggression from Pakistan. The United States has not jumped in. Normally, the United States asks questions such as: Can this friend handle the attack on its own? Is there perhaps fault on both sides? Are there nonmilitary solutions? How important are the interests at risk?

That last question is especially important in Saudi Arabia.

As Trump often reminds his Twitter readers, the United States is again a net exporter of oil, and the world’s largest single producer of petroleum. Saudi Arabia’s top customer is now China. The attack on the Saudi refineries raised the price of oil, but it’s doubtful that the spike will endure—and anyway, it is not obvious that an ultralow oil price is in the U.S. national interest. A higher oil price improves the competitiveness of North American producers and encourages oil consumers around the world to burn less of the climate-altering stuff.

There’s no evident emergency here.

What are the goals?

If the point of “locking and loading” is to impose a cost on Iran for its misconduct—well, Tehran is already paying for its misdeeds, in the form of crushing U.S. sanctions. Trump has often said that his supreme goal with Iran is to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear missile. If that’s the goal, then we need a new diplomatic initiative to replace the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement that Trump canceled.

If Trump hits Iran at the same time he is so abjectly wooing North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, it would, by contrast, only drive home the message: You people are fools not to develop a bomb of your own.

Who’s in charge?

Trump is working, at most, part-time. He is neither respected nor trusted by some 60 percent of the U.S. population, one of the most consistent rejections of a president in modern American political history. His administration is a chaos of rapid staff turnover, mutual betrayal, and weirdos and incompetents at the highest level. When good people occupy senior positions, they candidly ignore the president—as in the famous story of Secretary of Defense James Mattis taking a call from an agitated Trump, listening to his orders, then hanging up the phone and telling staff: “We’re not going to do any of that.”

So … who’s in charge? It’s not clear that anybody is. The president said in June that he would talk with Iran without preconditions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed that offer only last week. Then on Twitter yesterday, Trump denied that such talks had ever been considered.

If the fleet were unready or the Air Force grounded, the United States would try to postpone war making until they were repaired. Right now, it’s the presidency that is broken. Wars may have to wait until it is fixed.

What’s the angle?

The Trump Organization and members of the president’s family have been trousering streams of payments from the Persian Gulf since November 2016. Nobody can intelligently believe that U.S. policy is being made only with national interests in mind. That the Trump presidency may be for sale—or lease—is not everything that is going on, but it’s enough to reaffirm the first rule of foreign policy in the Trump years: No wars under this president.