One of the worst, most misguided, most destructive international “deals” in American history is now dead. Good. President Obama’s foreign-policy legacy, based in part on the flawed notion that “legitimate grievances” against America were the fuel for the jihadist fire, has now been rejected. Good. The Trump administration now fully owns American foreign policy, and it’s now fully responsible for dealing with Iran.
The correction of a serious error always requires taking multiple steps, and the first — in this case, Trump’s withdrawal from the deal — is typically the easiest. It’s the crowd-pleaser. It fulfills the campaign promise. The next step is to pursue a new and better course, and that is far more difficult. There are good reasons why so many administrations — each arriving with new and distinct foreign-policy strategies — have failed to “fix” the Middle East. The hatreds run deep, America’s enemies play a very long game, and our power has profound limits even when troops are deployed in force.
Given those realities, what should America do about Iran now?
First, and critically, it should resist any immediate urge to engage in a new round of deal-making with the jihadist regime. It’s time to reset the strategic picture, not to come to the table as new, better negotiators. That’s the sucker’s bet. The American message in the interim should be clear: Any move by Iran to ramp up its nuclear program will be seen as a threat to vital American interests and dealt with accordingly. There will be severe costs to any change in the nuclear status quo, and Iran must be aware of that fact.
Second, I agree with Eli Lake: “The most urgent task now for Trump is increasing the odds of success for Iran’s democracy movement.” Iran isn’t North Korea. There does exist a domestic reform movement that has more than a puncher’s chance of achieving real change. Yet, as Lake notes, Obama’s Iran deal “enriched the regime that Iran’s democrats are hoping to change.”
There is no clear, easy path to democratic reform in Iran, and Lake is absolutely correct that “Iranians will be the authors of their own liberation.” But there are still measures the administration can take — from specifically targeted sanctions to support for the means and measures that allow dissidents to communicate and coordinate — to put America’s thumb on the scale for reform rather than for Iran’s theocratic regime.
It’s time for America and its allies to advance and for Iran to recede.
Third, we must beat Iran on the battlefield, not by invading or declaring war but instead by ensuring the endurance and ultimate victory of our allies in the proxy conflicts raging across the Middle East. We must not abandon our allies in Syria, and we must not cede even an additional inch of territory to the combined Iranian/Russian/Assad forces in that country’s northeast. We should provide prudent and proper aid to Israeli efforts to weaken Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Lebanon. And we must work to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
When America pulled back from the Middle East under Obama, Iran surged forward. It soon reached a high-water mark of power and influence. It helped the Assad regime first cling to power and then turn the tide in the Syrian Civil War. It exerted extraordinary influence in Iraq. It pressured the position of America’s allies in Afghanistan. It helped turn Yemen into a bloody battleground.
If the Obama administration hoped the Iran deal would somehow moderate Iran, it was sorely mistaken. Instead, the Islamic Republic maintained its aggressive military posture and kept trying to kill American troops. It’s time for America and its allies to advance and for Iran to recede.
Advocates for the Iran deal presented Americans with a false choice: accept the deal’s terms or face war with Iran. But the deal was negotiated from a posture of extraordinary, entirely self-imposed weakness. The world’s greatest economic and military power walked into the negotiation as if it had the most to fear from military conflict, as if it was desperate to avoid war.
It’s time to reverse that dynamic. By any reasonable measure, Iran has the more to fear from armed confrontation with the U.S. than we have to fear from armed confrontation with Iran. The United States could cripple the Iranian military, wreck the Iranian economy, and destroy Iran’s known nuclear facilities without suffering (or even realistically risking) serious military losses. Iran should react with horror at that prospect, not the United States.
As it is, the United States has absorbed blow after blow from Iran and its proxy forces. Iranian weapons have killed and maimed hundreds of American soldiers. Iran’s Quds Force was directly involved in attacks on U.S. troops. Iran has sponsored and directed anti-American terror that has claimed hundreds more lives. Arguably no nation in recent history has taken more deadly action against the United States without a corresponding American response. No wonder the regime believed it could dictate terms to the Obama administration.
No one should be under any illusions that alternative paths forward aren’t also perilous. There is no easy answer to the crisis in the Middle East. Indeed, to even speak of definitive “answers” is fundamentally misguided. But there is a proper response to Iranian aggression and to Iranian nuclear ambitions: We must work to weaken the mullahs and then – assuming they remain in power – to deal with Iran from a position of confidence and strength.
In his piece urging support for democratic reform in Iraq, Lake refers to Iran specialist Kenneth Pollack’s “two clocks” theory of Iranian engagement: There’s a “countdown to nuclear weapons, and a countdown to democracy,” so “the best guide for U.S. policy [is] to try to slow down the former to give more time for the latter.”
The Obama administration sacrificed the countdown to democracy in the effort to slow the countdown to nuclear weapons, and it harmed American interests. Now, we need a fundamentally different approach: Hasten the countdown to democracy while deterring the countdown to a jihadist bomb. No deals for now — let’s weaken Iran and change the strategic calculus first. Then, and only then, the negotiating table may yield a meaningful result.