he September attack on Saudi oil facilities was the latest in a series of Iranian escalations, which include the May 14 and June 13 oil tanker attacks, the June 20 downing of a U.S. drone, and July 19 seizure of the Stena Impero, a British oil tanker. Iran’s escalations have been met with a relatively minimal response by the U.S. or the international community. The attack on Saudi Arabia only resulted in a renewed push for diplomatic engagement with Iran on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and new U.S. sanctions, which will only achieve incremental material economic impact. With no proportional reaction to this serious escalation on the part of Iran, the linear escalation ladder often used to describe U.S.-Iran tensions has been superseded by a new, iterative escalatory pattern. The expected “tit-for-tat” pattern no longer applies to current day circumstances.
The attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais facilities was a serious escalation from Iran’s recent aggressive actions—mostly occurring within the waters surrounding the Strait of Hormuz. The attack involved cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft that may have been launched from within Iran’s own territory—a first—and caused millions of barrels of Saudi production capacity to go offline. And yet despite this, the response from the international community was rather mild. In the supposed tit-for-tat escalation pattern, Iran’s largest “tat” to date was met with no meaningful “tit” from the United States, Europe, or Saudi Arabia. This will make it harder for the United States to deter Iran in the future and eventually re-engage Iran diplomatically.
Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have all publicly called Iran responsible for the attack. Yet France, Germany, and the United Kingdom simply released a statement urging Iran to “refrain from choosing provocation and escalation.” President Emmanuel Macron of France even called for renewed diplomatic engagement with Iran in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, a process that appears to be the focus of European efforts in the coming weeks. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the country wanted to avoid war and escalation.