On the campaign trail, President Donald J. Trump repeatedly lambasted the nuclear arms agreement that the Obama Administration made with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Essentially, Mr. Trump not only (correctly) believed that the deal was bad for America, but that it was one of the “worst deals” of all time. Indeed, when the Iranian government seemed poised to launch a long-range missile–in direct contravention of the agreement made with the Obama Administration–National Security Adviser Mike Flynn officially placed Iran “on notice.”
Shortly thereafter, thankfully, the Iranians appear to have stood down. Well, at least, they appeared to have stood down partially. Rather than testing the original long-range missile, Iran removed that missile from its launchpad and replaced it with a smaller, less powerful one. Clearly, Iran was cowed by the ominous warning that President Trump’s National Security Adviser issued. Even still, the nuclear agreement technically remains in place.
In fact, since the Obama Administration crafted an executive agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as F.H. Buckley recently wrote, the details of the deal have yet to be released to the public. The Trump Administration should unveil these details with due haste. If the deal is as bad (and it most certainly is) as President Trump assessed during the campaign, the American people–indeed, the world–must know what’s in the deal. This would all be aimed at gathering popular support for increasing the diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on Iran once more.
The sad fact is that the United States had Iran contained. Before 9/11, Iran was effectively contained. Oh, sure, they continued terrorizing Israel by funding Hezbollah and by maintaining a nominal alliance Syria’s Alawite leaders, the Assad family. But, their ability to truly influence events was seriously limited by the presence of hostile Sunni kingdoms, Israel, and the unquestionable might of the American military, which acted as a regional hegemon. When the George W. Bush Administration moved to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, many regional experts were concerned. They feared removing Saddam Hussein from Iraq would weaken Iraq and remove the one counterbalance to Iranian regional aggression.
These critics of the Iraq War in 2003 turned out to be right…to a point.
Even after the invasion of Iraq, before the Bush Administration revealed that it had no viable plan whatsoever for the postwar situation in Iraq, the Iranians were scared out of their minds. The Americans had invaded Iraq in a short time with a force that topped 150,000 troops. They conquered Iraq in just 21 days. To compound Iran’s fears, the rhetoric coming from the Bush Administration was that any authoritarian terror sponsoring state could be next. Iran was the leading state sponsor of terrorism. This put them on notice.
As the PBS Frontline documentary, “Showdown With Iran” proves, the Iranians sent a peace overture to the Bush Administration in early 2003. For various reasons, that peace overture was ultimately rejected by the Bush Administration. By the time the insurgency in Iraq got underway and America became increasingly bogged down there, the Iranians not only rescinded their overture, but they also doubled down on their antipathy toward the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
For years, the Iranians played hardball as the U.S. grew more and more distracted between Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iranians were keenly aware that the longer the U.S. got bogged down in both wars, the more desperate that the U.S. would be to extricate themselves from the war…and the more disenchanted most Americans would grow with any further entanglement in the Mideast. So, for the entirety of the Iraq War, the Iranians allowed al Qaeda operatives to traverse through their territory from Afghanistan and into Iraq. They would routinely send their elite Qods Forces into the southern part of Iraq (the predominantly Shiite region of the country) to lend aid to the Mahdī Army led by the firebrand Muqtada al Sadr. The goal was to create enough instability in the country that the U.S. forces would be forced to flee and never return not unlike what happened to the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Now, with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, the implosion of Syria, and the apparent inability of the predominantly Shiite-led Iraqi government to control its own borders and prevent ISIS from destabilizing Iraq, the Iranians have expanded their reach beyond their borders. Thus, in just 16 years, Iran has gone from isolated pariah in the Middle East to a quasi-regional hegemon. It now is the lead supporter (along with Russia) of Basher al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. The Iranians continue to lend support to Hezbollah. Iran has engaged in a gruesome proxy war with their Sunni neighbor, Saudi Arabia, in both Bahrain and Yemen. Meanwhile, Iran continues to antagonize and threaten American and allied forces operating in the region.
The Iranian pursuit of nuclear arms fits nicely into this larger strategy of regional dominance. Indeed, it is the linchpin of such a strategy. Iran saw what happens to states that oppose America but lack such weapons (i.e. Iraq). Iran was prepared to repeat what Gaddafi’s Libya ultimately did shortly after the Bush Administration toppled Saddam Hussein: renounce terrorism, surrender its nuclear ambitions, and submit to inspections. But, as time progressed, Iran detected weakness and played its own hand masterfully, In fact, it has expanded its reach and is apparently lending critical aid–along with the Russians, Chinese, and Pakistanis–to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As I’ve argued in previous articles, the bomb is not only the ultimate tool for Iran to both protect itself from U.S. attack but to also project its own power in the region, but it is also a religious token. The Iranian people (particularly the youth) may be moderate and reasonable. However, their government is most certainly not. The Iranian state is a theocracy ruled by a religious council who believe in an apocalyptic version of Shia Islam. As per the dictates of this worldview, the Iranian religious leadership believes that they must use nuclear weapons in order to destroy the Shiite’s enemies and usher the return of their messiah, or Mahdī.
Americans tend to downplay this point of view. Indeed, many American policy analysts–of both the Right and Left–have moved the discussion away from Mahdī apocalypticism and toward a more reasoned, materialistic view of Iranian intentions. Iran is only concerned with regional hegemony. Ergo, these analysts argue that everything Iran does is extremely rational. But, as I have argued, Iran can absolutely be rational and yet still have an irrational worldview. After all, what rational actor would seriously attempt to threaten a state as visibly powerful as the United States? Besides, there are plenty of people that we encounter who are seemingly rational and yet possess a warped worldview.
The same is true of Iran today.
Therefore, the idea that the U.S. can negotiate with Iran and make moves to facilitate a greater American drawdown in the Mideast is absurd. Furthermore, despite what the Obama Administration may have thought, there can be no hope of a bipolar stability existing between a nuclear-armed Iran and the Sunni Kingdoms (and Israel) in the region. Iran wants to acquire nuclear arms. Once the Iranian leadership believes that it has a sufficient stockpile of these weapons, they will use nuclear arms on their perceived enemies. The U.S. is included in this long list of mortal enemies.
Maintaining the Obama Administration’s nuclear agreement (or crafting any agreement with Iran on this issue) weakens the U.S. and empowers a mad theocracy. There can be no placating Iran. The last 8 years have proven that if one gives Iran an inch they’ll turn it into a mile…and reassert their control over the Shia Crescent and destabilize the wider region. Containing Iran is our only hope at staving off the kind of disaster that the Obama nuclear agreement heralded.
The Trump Administration must abandon any pretense of respecting its predecessors agreement. The first step was to put Iran on notice. The second was to snap-back sanctions. But, let’s be real here: snapping back sanctions onto Iran will do little. You see, once the sanctions were lifted on Iran last year, Iran entered into a series of binding 15-year agreements with several Western powers. The goal of sanctions is to hit Iran where it counts: its national treasury.
Unfortunately, the 15-year agreements made with companies in Italy and throughout Europe make such sanctions relatively toothless. Plus, intensifying the sanctions beyond what they are will likely only antagonize the Iranian people and push them away from sympathizing with the West. It will encourage the worst anti-American sentiment and lend credibility to the Iranian government which has failed to deliver any of its basic promises to the Iranian people.
What is needed is for the Trump Administration to recognize that Iran must be contained the way that it was throughout the 1990’s. More public statements like the one that Mr. Flynn made are needed. President Trump must work to align the U.S. with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel much closer than it ever has militarily to buffer Iranian influence. What’s more, the Trump Administration must be willing to make examples of Iran repeatedly for its intransigence. The next time one of the Iranian Navy’s speedboats attempts to get dangerously close to a U.S. Navy warship operating in the vital Straits of Hormuz, the U.S. Navy warship should have orders to sink the Iranian ship.
If Iran places a long-range missile on a launchpad somewhere in Iran, and the U.S. detects it with its advanced surveillance, the U.S. should deploy a stealth fighter and blow that missile up on its pad. Also, cyber attacks like Stuxnet need to be more involved in the repertoire of American reprisals. Indeed, an offensive cyber warfare doctrine is needed in this day-and-age.
The point is that Iran cannot be trusted to play fairly and they cannot be relied on to adhere to any deal made with them. Iran has a religious commitment to acquiring nuclear arms. No amount of hectoring from the United States through diplomatic channels will ever lead to anything constructive. Indeed, as the last two decades of sanctions have shown, not even economic pressure placed by the U.S. will ultimately bring about the desired regime change in Iran. Only hard power can keep Iran in check.
The Trump Administration must temper its expectations of ridding Iran of its current leadership through military action. But, the Trump Administration must absolutely embrace the concept of using force–and the threat of force–to keep Iranian aggression from boiling over and permanently rewriting the regional order in America’s disfavor.