Diplomacy Alone Won’t End the Iranian Threat

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran. January 17, 2020. (Official Khamenei website/Handout via Reuters)
A regime such as the Islamic Republic’s must be countered with a more-holistic approach.

Supporters of the Obama administration’s Iran deal have tended to argue that “diplomacy” is the only answer to the threats posed by Tehran. Asked about their Iran policies, the Democrats running for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination all stress the need to either re-enter the deal or refocus on diplomacy.

“I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies,” Joe Biden told the New York Times. “What I would do is negotiate — I would bring people together just as President Obama did years ago,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar at a Democratic debate last month. Senator Bernie Sanders has said that the U.S. must strengthen diplomatic capabilities and join with other countries to “work out our differences through debate.

The diplomacy-only track fundamentally misunderstands the logic behind having diplomacy in the first place. Diplomacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is part of a country’s foreign-policy arsenal. When dealing with allies, it is the key to nurturing relations. But when dealing with adversaries, it has to be part of a more-holistic approach to work. The irony is that Iran’s leaders have had great success employing just such an approach to its adversaries, precisely because they understand that the West is afraid of war and that it has largely abandoned the idea of using force as a means to its strategic ends.

Iran is happy to play the diplomacy game when that is to its advantage, but it has less-savory means of getting what it wants, too. It deploys military advisors through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to countries such as Syria, where some 800 IRGC troops are now located, and where it has also recruited mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight for its ally, Bashar al-Assad. It funds Hezbollah and arms the terror group with precision-guided munitions. It transfers missile and drone technology to Yemen, and its intelligence officials have infiltrated Iraq to gain a stranglehold on that country’s politics. It isn’t shy about using military means when necessary, either. It has fired rockets at Israel, attacked Saudi Arabia with cruise missiles, used drones against Israel, fired ballistic missiles at U.S. forces and used its militias to attack them in Iraq, and mined ships in the Gulf of Oman.

All of this demands a response from the West that combines diplomacy with military force. One has to confront a country such as Iran on its own terms. If it fields diplomats and paramilitary proxies and sanctions missile attacks on U.S. troops, then the U.S. must field diplomats, rally its own allies on the ground, and invest in missile-defense capabilities. Unfortunately, the domestic debate about how to confront Iran tends to be an “either-or” discussion: Either we try diplomacy or we make war. For Americans wary of more foreign wars, it is natural to respond to this framing by opting for diplomacy. But war and diplomacy are not mutually exclusive options; they are tools from the same kit. Iran, Russia, China, and other adversaries confront the U.S. on multiple fronts, through economic, military, and political warfare as well as espionage.

Iran sees itself as involved in a total war with the U.S., a fact made clear by the constant statements from the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, calling the U.S. “satanic” and “evil.” For Tehran’s leaders, this is a religious–ideological struggle to the death. To win it, the U.S. will have to fight it on those terms, which starts with refusing to unilaterally abandon all the non-diplomatic options it has at its disposal. At its core, U.S. policy should always seek to counter Iran on multiple levels, providing the kind of leverage that forces Tehran to come to the table with a weakened hand, rather than allowing it to launch more missiles, hire more proxies, and sanction more probing attacks with impunity.

Most Popular

Film & TV

America’s Favorite Movie

For more than a decade, readers volunteering their ratings on the movie site IMDb have declared The Shawshank Redemption (1994) their favorite film of all time. (Number two is The Godfather). Unlike the unholy tablets that are the box office charts, which are strongly linked to marketing budgets and show a ... Read More
Film & TV

America’s Favorite Movie

For more than a decade, readers volunteering their ratings on the movie site IMDb have declared The Shawshank Redemption (1994) their favorite film of all time. (Number two is The Godfather). Unlike the unholy tablets that are the box office charts, which are strongly linked to marketing budgets and show a ... Read More
Media

The Media Owe Senator Tom Cotton an Apology

One of the biggest issues people have with the mainstream press these days is that some of its members are so insulated that they end up buying into and promoting false narratives without actually checking these narratives' veracity. That seems to be exactly what happened in mid February, when major outlets ... Read More
Media

The Media Owe Senator Tom Cotton an Apology

One of the biggest issues people have with the mainstream press these days is that some of its members are so insulated that they end up buying into and promoting false narratives without actually checking these narratives' veracity. That seems to be exactly what happened in mid February, when major outlets ... Read More
World

All Signs Point to China

Just one big story today: collecting and sorting through what we know about the coronavirus's origins, and what makes sense and what doesn’t in the theory that it originated from someone eating bats or pangolins from the Huanan Seafood Market. What We Know and What We Don’t Know about the Source of ... Read More
World

All Signs Point to China

Just one big story today: collecting and sorting through what we know about the coronavirus's origins, and what makes sense and what doesn’t in the theory that it originated from someone eating bats or pangolins from the Huanan Seafood Market. What We Know and What We Don’t Know about the Source of ... Read More
World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More
World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Welcome Back, Plastic Bags

Single-use plastic bags are a miracle of modern technology. Cheap, light, convenient, and ubiquitous, they provide an elegant solution to a problem. If you recycle them, as most people do, and put your rubbish in them, that creates a net reduction in carbon emissions compared with buying the heavier, thicker ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Welcome Back, Plastic Bags

Single-use plastic bags are a miracle of modern technology. Cheap, light, convenient, and ubiquitous, they provide an elegant solution to a problem. If you recycle them, as most people do, and put your rubbish in them, that creates a net reduction in carbon emissions compared with buying the heavier, thicker ... Read More