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The Cold War With Iran Is Back


The Cold War with Iran is back. I don’t say this as a criticism of President Trump’s decision to cancel the Iran deal. That decision did not restart the conflict. Iran’s Cold War against the U.S. never stopped. This decision just recognizes that fact and gets America back in to fight our side of it.

To be more exact, it discards Barack Obama’s fantasy that appeasing Iran would end its hostility toward the U.S. and its interests. The idea that America could make all of its enemies go away just by being nicer to them was President Obama’s personal fixation, and the Iran deal was his personal commitment. That’s why it could be suspended unilaterally. To those hyperventilating over Trump’s decision, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse gives the rejoinder I was planning on:

Today is a reminder that if you live by the Presidency, you die by the Presidency. We ought to be clear about this: Donald Trump isn’t ripping up a treaty; he’s walking away from Barack Obama’s personal pledge. Two and a half years ago, President Obama made a bad deal with Iran without support from Congress, and today President Trump is pulling out of President Obama’s personal commitment, and he doesn’t need Congress’s support to do so. American foreign policy makes lasting progress when it is led by the President, approved by Congress, and presented honestly to the American people.

Foreign policy also works best when it’s not a bunch of disconnected decisions — an air strike here, canceling a diplomatic deal there — but is part of a long-term effort bringing multiple tools to bear to achieve a clear strategic goal. In that regard, there are several promising signs in the president’s announcement, particularly the way he broadened his rationale by looking, not just at Iran’s cheating on its nuclear weapons program, but at its role as the source of multiple threats to US interests and allies:

The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terror. It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East and supports terrorists, proxies and militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and Al Qaeda….

The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran [in exchange for] very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity and no limits at all on its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen and other places all around the world.

Donald Trump is not the sort of guy to use phrases like “malign behavior” on his own accord. He clearly got it from the aides who wrote the official memo about the decision, which includes in its title, “Taking Additional Action to Counter Iran’s Malign Influence,” which is exactly what we need to do.


Since its inception in 1979 as a revolutionary theocracy, the Islamic Republic of Iran has declared its hostility to the United States and its allies and partners. Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, and other terrorist networks. Iran also continues to fuel sectarian violence in Iraq, and support vicious civil wars in Yemen and Syria. It commits grievous human rights abuses, and arbitrarily detains foreigners, including United States citizens, on spurious charges without due process of law….

It is the policy of the United States that Iran be denied a nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles; that Iran’s network and campaign of regional aggression be neutralized; to disrupt, degrade, or deny the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its surrogates access to the resources that sustain their destabilizing activities; and to counter Iran’s aggressive development of missiles and other asymmetric and conventional weapons capabilities.

You know who is the kind of guy to use phrases like “malign influence,” particularly in reference to Iran? John Bolton, Trump’s new national security advisor. He’s also the kind of guy to adopt and prosecute the kind of broad strategy against Iran that is implied here.

A Cold War really is the right model for thinking about how to deal with Iran, because the parallels to the Soviet Union are extensive. Iran is a regime based on a revolutionary ideology that it seeks to export across the world and particularly in the Greater Middle East. It does this sometimes through direct military involvement but also through proxy wars and subversion and through support for political parties, revolutionary movements, and terrorist groups — all pages from the Soviet playbook. In this regard, Iran is and always has been a larger threat than ISIS. That group aspired to become a state but never quite managed it. Iran has a virtually identical ideology, despite superficial sectarian differences, and it already is a state, complete with a nuclear weapons program.

Like the Soviet Union, Iran is an engine of global conflict, though on a smaller scale, since Iran’s resources are more limited and its ideology, a fanatical re-interpretation of Shiite Islam, is less universal in its appeal than Communism.

Also like the Soviet Union, Iran is weak internally. Behind its propaganda and revolutionary bluster, it has a failing economy and a corrupt and oppressive political elite who have alienated their own people. The Iranian regime has spent the past few decades suppressing student rebellions and massive street demonstrations demanding greater freedom — as recently as January and most famously during the Green Revolution of 2009, which the Obama administration studiously ignored in their single-minded devotion to the fantasy of a nuclear weapons deal.

That is the real opportunity opened by President Trump’s decision. If Iran is an engine of chaos, we should use this as an opportunity to disable that engine. As expected, The New York Times got the vapors over Trump’s decision to cancel the Iran deal, but at the same time they published an article clearly describing the potential impact of that decision:

The sense of crisis in Iran runs deep and wide. The economy is in free fall. The currency is plummeting. Rising prices are squeezing city dwellers. A five-year drought is devastating the countryside. The pitched battle between political moderates and hard-liners is so perilous that there is even talk of a military takeover.

Now, the lifeline offered by the 2015 nuclear deal, which was supposed to alleviate pressure on Iran’s economy and crack open the barriers to the West, is falling apart, too: President Trump announced Tuesday that he was withdrawing the United States from the agreement, which he called a “disastrous deal.”…

[I]n the long term, the unraveling of the nuclear agreement could be bad news for the entire Iranian leadership, already buffeted by mounting popular dissatisfaction over the economy and a lack of freedoms and prospects. It could be bad news for average Iranians, too.

“Someone, please change our fate, whoever, even Trump,” said Ali Shoja, a cleaner who said he can’t afford to support his three sons. “I used to be a driver, now I clean. What’s next? I cannot become a beggar.”

Changing Iran’s fate is the whole idea, though we can hope there are enough Iranians who are willing to take that fate into their own hands.

Our Cold War with Iran never stopped. We just stopped fighting it. If President Trump follows up on this decision, he has an opportunity not just to revive the American effort against Iran, but to win this Cold War in the same way as the one we fought against the Soviets — and with similar dividends in terms of global peace, prosperity, and freedom.