Iran has misjudged not only the toxic effects of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions on the regime but also the entire psychology of U.S. policy toward Iran. The result is that Iranian unemployment is soaring, its gross domestic product is tanking, inflation is raging, oil prices are crashing, and its friends are fewer than ever — and for the first time in 40 years, the regime believes that it must do something quite radical before it implodes.
2020 is not 1979, not 1983, not 1986, not 2004–2007, and not 2011 — all years when Iran variously pressured the U.S. by taking hostages, killing American personnel in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, threatening oil disruptions, and planning to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. Now things are redefined for a variety of reasons, most of them apparently still underappreciated by the theocratic Iranian elite.
1) As the world’s largest oil and natural-gas producer, the U.S. is not vulnerable to cutoffs of oil from the Middle East. It, of course, cares about global free passage through the Straits of Hormuz, but not as much as do major importers such as Europe and exporters such as China.
Americans today certainly would not go to war if oil-dependent nations did not themselves first confront Iran over any threatened denial of access through the straits. That said, most Americans would not wish their sons and daughters to die to keep Chinese trade — or even Europe’s oil imports — safe.
As far as the old Middle East “tensions” spiking oil prices and thereby harming consumers in the U.S. are concerned, such theoretical crises now offer a wash to America: Higher gas prices would also mean that the value of ascending U.S. daily oil production would increase by hundreds of millions of dollars every week, because consumers mostly pay fellow Americans for increased gas costs at the pump.
Yet in truth, world oil prices are crashing because of new producers on the market and panic over global economic slowdown from the coronavirus panic. Nor can Iran threaten Israel with fuel cutoffs, given Israeli self-sufficiency in natural gas and, increasingly, oil production. The Arab world, Russia, and the U.S. — that is, countries responsible for over 60 percent of world’s daily oil output — either like having Iranian oil off the market or don’t seem to care. In sum, Iran is pumping less oil at lower prices than at any time in recent memory.
2) Iran has not figured out Trump. He is not beholden to the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment — as his critics lament. He has no beltway “wise men” envoys who float between Republican and Democratic administrations and advise caution and split-the-difference mediation.
Trump is instead sui generis, unpredictable, and he does not seem to worry much whether the New York Times or the Council on Foreign Relations dubs him “reckless” or “unpredictable” or even “dangerous.” He is not likely to relent and end sanctions unilaterally, as past presidents did in the cases of Iran and North Korea.
Thus, Trump does not obsess over Iran any more than he does over the Palestinians. By that, I mean, he levels sanctions or cuts aid, and then moves on. Ginned-up crowds chanting “Death to America” have been stale Tehranian fare for 40 years and have zero effect on the Trump administration. Being hated by seventh-century-style imams is only to Trump’s advantage — to the extent he or anyone else even notices anymore.
After 40 years of Iranian psychodramas and “Death to America” monotony (coupled with the desire of many Iranians to visit or reside in the U.S.), the world in general doesn’t much worry about Iran’s self-created mess. Most nations neither fear Iran nor collude with it. It is a pariah state, analogous to Venezuela or North Korea. And now it is a broke and weak one to boot. Only Russia and China claim it as a client, needy though it is. John Kerry’s sin was not just that he appeased the Iranian theocracy, but that he gave them any attention at all.
So far Trump has mostly done what he said he would, not just at home but concerning some of the most controversial foreign-policy issues of our age: He has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cut off most U.S. aid to the Palestinians, exited the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal, and confronted China in an existential stand-off over trade.
This record suggests that when Trump says he has a theoretical list of targets — no doubt, power plants, military bases, and nuclear facilities — that U.S. drones, missiles, or air strikes will target in response should Iran revert to form and once again begin killing Americans through terrorist appendages and with the same old, same old denial of culpability, Trump might, in fact, very well strike. Any such retaliation would inflict billions of dollars in damage to Iran, but without a great risk of losing American service personal or inflicting civilian collateral damage. Iran is the subtext for a Middle East that is becoming less and less important to America.
Our Middle East interests have shrunk to two concerns: No Middle East nations should use oil revenues to go nuclear, and terrorists should not have sacrosanct badlands from which to launch attacks on the U.S. Both agendas can be advanced mostly by air power, without large bases or the use of ground troops.
3) There is no longer just an Islamic–Western binary. The ancient Shiite–Sunni tensions have intensified because of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, which the Gulf kingdoms and moderate Arab regimes believe would be aimed at them, inevitably ending in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
As a result, in polls of Arab public opinion, Israel is seen in the Sunni world as a neutral power or perhaps even a useful third-party resource rather than an existential enemy — on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is sort of my anti-Iranian friend.
In other words, Iran is no longer opposed by just the U.S and the West and Israel. Now almost all the Sunni Muslim world also opposes Iran, in a way not so true in the past three decades. Tehran’s attack on the Saudi oil refinery reminds the region that Iran is an opportunistic predator, in the sense that it prefers attacking vulnerable Muslim antagonists rather than Israel, which would have replied disproportionately.
In sum, Iran is reaching North Korean status, becoming a regional and international pariah, found useful only by terrorists, China and Russia, and outlaw governments such as Pyongyang’s. And now it lacks even such a patron as nuclear China (which props up North Korea), and it has alienated both Turkey and Egypt and become an albatross around the neck of the Palestinians.
4) Maximum-pressure strategies are in truth reactive. Our policy forces Iran to be the aggressor, ostensibly. Or least it allows them to make their own decisions about their own future. American ground troops are no longer nearby and vulnerable in any great number in Iraq, as they were in 2005 and 2006 when Iran targeted them with shaped charges. The U.S. is not bogged down by a raging war in Iraq. It is not mired in a post-2008 recession.
There is no American embassy in Tehran. The U.S. has no desire for preemptory invasion or even nation-building through coup attempts. Hezbollah and Hamas are running out of money and are at a nadir in terms of global empathy to their causes.
Each day that passes in the U.S.–Iranian standoff is of no expense to the U.S. It is not conducting a costly 1962-like blockade (as we then did in Cuba) in patrolling Iran’s ports. There are no American jets tasked with a grueling twelve years of enforcement of U.N.-mandated no-fly zones, as we maintained over Iraq during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Marines are not circling offshore waiting to invade Tehran. No one is advocating another Libyan misadventure.
The American public does not like the Iranian government and does not listen when it claims that sanctions are hurting “the Iranian people,” to whom theocrats have so serially lied about the coronavirus and the downed Ukrainian jet liner, and whom it so callously has butchered in the street.
The apartheid South African government cried similarly that sanctions hurt poor blacks. Perhaps they did — in the short term. But most of the victims were willing to endure hardship for the long-term weakening or collapse of the regime that was the source of their discontent. The U.S. has never waged a war against the Iranian people. If anything, the prior six presidents went out of their way to distinguish Iranians from the theocracy that hijacked their government — all in the vain hope that a grassroots revolution might overthrow the supreme leader.
Indeed, official American policy has long been that the millions of protesters in the Iranian streets chanting anti-American slogans are not the majority of the population, that the reason for 40 years of Iranian autocracy was not that the Iranian people liked their anti-American government, and that parlor trashing of America by dissident Iranian intellectuals in the West was over tactics, not the strategy of opposing the theocracy. All that may or may not be true, but again it has been America’s de facto bipartisan policy.
U.S. banks and Treasury officials are steadily, stealthily, and without much attention ratcheting up the pressure — on the premise that the U.S. economy and military have never been stronger, making it iffy for neutrals to buck American sanctions.
Under maximum pressure, the theocracy grows more desperate each day. We can see that in the regime’s recent murdering of 1,500 protesters, the lying and loss of fides about the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet, the inability to tell the truth about the COVID-19 outbreaks, and the anemic turnout in regional elections. In the case of the coronavirus, Iran reminds us that a duplicitous authoritarian government is a force multiplier of plague, given its innate distrust of the people, its paranoid misallotment of resources, and its counterproductive scapegoating of foreign powers for its own incompetence.
Iran at some point, sooner rather than later, will either have to concede and return to the Iran deal, giving up concessions such as inclusion of missiles and terrorists, allowing true snap spot inspections, and agreeing to never go nuclear.
Or it can brag that it is the new Albania or Maoist China, having forged a completely autonomous Islamic economy, free at last from the corrupting tentacle of the despised U.S., Inc.
Or it can again, on spec, turn to its now money-hungry terrorist surrogates to kill Americans, with the hope that Donald J. Trump was bluffing when he promised to do billions of dollars of damage to Iranian infrastructure if terrorists began killing Americans.
In truth, Iran cannot afford either to escalate (and risk crippling air strikes) or back down (and experience loss of face and prestige throughout the Islamic and terrorist worlds). Nor can it continue with the status quo of sanctions and falling oil prices (and thus slowly return to a pre-modern economy). The regime will not liberalize, but it will lose its national infrastructure and wealth if it starts killing Americans. Iran certainly cannot create a self-sufficient economy.
In short, never in our long, checkered 40-year shared history with Iran has the U.S. been relatively stronger and Iran abjectly weaker.
The ball is in Iran’s court, and the American attitude seems to be “do your worst, and we will do our best in response” — and that reality is a self-made lose-lose dilemma for the theocracy. For the first time in 40 years, there is at least some hope for the Iranian people that the end of their tragic nightmare is on the horizon.