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.