The Corner

National Security & Defense

On Iran and Accepting Risk

A flight deck crew signals an MV-22 to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, May 17, 2019. ( Amber Smalley/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

Last Friday, David French wrote a column on the risk of war with Iran. I don’t disagree with the concerns he expressed, but the context here is, as always, important.

Ever since the Trump administration came into office, it has been seeking to isolate and pressure Iran, for two reasons. The first and most basic reason is that the Iranian regime presents a direct threat to the safety of the United States. That’s why everyone, across the political spectrum, believes that it would be a disaster if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. People disagree about how to prevent that from happening, but they all agree it must be prevented.

Think of the current tension with North Korea. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, Iran would be North Korea on steroids.

The second reason is that the United States protects its interests in the Middle East by working through an informal partnership with Israel and the “moderate” Sunni regimes: Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and — to some extent — Saudi Arabia. Iran is the number-one threat to most of those partners and therefore to the security construct that is the foundation of America’s regional interests.

So the Trump policy has been to isolate Iran, reduce its oil revenue, and disable its economy. Hence the withdrawal from the flawed nuclear deal, the constant ratcheting up of sanctions, the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, and the diplomatic pressure on Iran in the United Nations and other international forums.

The biggest potential upside of American efforts would be a weakening of the regime to the point that it collapsed in the face of domestic dissent. The lesser objective is to degrade Iran’s ability to control Iraq and Syria, fund and supply Hezbollah and Hamas, and engage in aggression in places like Yemen.

In other words, the Trump administration has an actual policy, guided by an actual strategy. The strategy is reasonably related to America’s vital interests, and the policy has been executed with some degree of consistency over time, using the tools of smart power (sanctions and aggressive diplomacy) that are always preferable as a means of exercising national influence.

And the policy is enjoying a reasonable degree of success. Iran has been weakened economically and is on the defensive diplomatically. The corrupt ideologues who run it are losing money, Iran has fewer resources to support its proxies, and the regime has been forced to spend diplomatic capital, especially in Europe, defending the sources of foreign money it has left.

But here’s a truth worth emphasizing: Every foreign-policy option carries with it risk. There is no strategy, especially in the Middle East, that is without a potential downside.

One of the risks of the Trump policy toward Iran was that the regime would attempt to relieve the pressure by attacking, or causing its proxies to attack, American assets in the region. Evidently there is intelligence now that such an attack may be pending.

The Trump administration has responded by reducing the exposure of likely targets, such as the embassy in Iraq, and threatening reprisals by air and sea to deter the regime. The risk of the latter is that, if Iran attacks anyway, the administration will have to respond, the response could trigger escalation, and the escalation could lead to the losses that David wrote about.

So the worst-case scenario David describes is possible, but the danger of it is lower than the risk of either giving Iran a free hand in the Middle East or failing to punish the regime if it attacks the United States. It’s not as if giving carrots to the Iranians has caused them to exercise restraint in the past. Or to put it more simply, the best Middle East policy — the one most likely to protect American interests while preserving the peace — is to support those whose objectives align roughly with our own, pressure adversaries, and prepare robust but non-escalatory options to deter the adversaries from responding with outright aggression.

That’s been Trump’s strategy so far, and I think it’s the right one.

I’ll add one other thing. All of these decisions become less risky, for any American president, if the United States is strong — if it has robust tools of power that give presidents a variety of good options to avert or contain a crisis. The foundational tool of American national influence is the armed forces, because, as we are seeing now, it’s the ability to deter kinetic aggression that gives time and space for the tools of smart power to work.

The dangers David wrote about are greater than they should be, and greater than they were in 1988 during Operation Praying Mantis, because the gap between American and Iranian capabilities, though still substantial, is less than it once was. There ought to be no question that in a naval or air exchange between America and a rogue regime with a basket-case economy, the United States would win quickly, decisively, and with minimal losses.

The fact that there is a question — that a column like David’s could have been written — shows the utter failure of the last three administrations to sustain the size and strength of the armed forces at a sufficient level. That failure cannot be reversed overnight. No matter what our presidents do, we must live through at least the next few years with a high level of risk that, at some point where it really matters, deterrence will fail.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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