Is the United States on the brink of war with Iran? That’s the message the American people have been getting from much of the mainstream media as well as from prominent Democrats.
They are arguing that Trump is blundering the country into war with Iran and the only sane alternative is to stick with President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. Yet while tensions with Iran are rising, this critique is essentially the same argument we were hearing a few years ago when Obama’s pact was being debated. At that time, the country was told its only choices about Iran were war or appeasement.
But as the United States has sought to regain the leverage over Iran that Obama discarded during the course of the negotiations—the ones that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—we must realize that this is a false choice. President Donald Trump’s success in re-imposing sanctions has essentially returned the West to the point it was at in 2013. That was when Iran returned to the negotiating table only to find that the Obama administration was so desperate for a deal that it was prepared to abandon almost all of its key demands on the nuclear issue, as well as drop its concerns about other issues like missile production and terrorism.
The question now is whether Democrats and their media allies can help promote and exploit the country’s legitimate concerns about the possibility of war to the point where it could cause the administration to alter its policy.
How Much Influence Does Media Have on Trump?
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and his subsequent re-imposition of economic sanctions on Tehran were supposed to be a total flop. Or at least that was the assumption of Obama alumni and the rest of the foreign policy establishment as well as the journalists that former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes aptly described as the former president’s media “echo chamber.”
But they were wrong about Trump’s ability to fundamentally alter the debate about Iran. But by the end of 2018, the administration had gone beyond threats of renewed sanctions. By implementing restrictions on commerce with Iran and warning its trading partners that they would have to choose between economic ties with the United States and those with Iran, it quickly became apparent that Tehran’s confidence that it could wait out the Trump administration—as former secretary of state John Kerry said he had advised his former negotiation partners to do—and rely on support from Western Europe, Russia, and China to fend off American pressure was unfounded.
European efforts to help Iran evade unilateral Western sanctions were a failure. Neither the Germans nor the French were really prepared to choose commerce with Iran over doing business in the United States. Plans to try to evade the U.S. sanctions by establishing a barter system with the Iranians never had a chance of success.
While the JCPOA had enriched and empowered Iran, Trump’s decision dealt its economy and ability to fund foreign adventures a body blow. By this spring the regime’s terrorist auxiliaries were also feeling the pinch. As The New York Times reported, Hezbollah fighters were quoted as complaining that Iran no longer had the resources to support their efforts.
Their troubles are now being compounded by administration plans to shut down Iran’s remaining foreign oil sales, which provide its main source of export income, a measure that Obama stopped short of imposing even at the height of economic sanctions. Faced with an economic crisis that was undermining its bid for regional hegemony, Iran has been left with a stark choice.
As for Iran’s Choice
Iran can return, as it did in 2013 when international sanctions were starting to bite, to the table. That would mean a much-needed revision to the nuclear agreement that would close the loopholes Obama left wide open, such as the fact that the deal will expire within a decade. Equally important would be to condition the lifting of sanctions requiring Tehran to end its funding for international terror and its illegal ballistic missile program.
While Obama said that the JCPOA gave Iran a chance to “get right with the world,” his willingness to sign a deal at any price ensured they would have no incentive to do so. Trump’s efforts are the only way for Obama’s hope to be realized.
There are two alternatives to negotiations for Iran: They can try to wait out Trump hoping that he will be defeated for re-election in 2020. Or they can threaten to resume efforts toward building a nuclear weapon and ratchet up tensions in the region in an attempt to convince Trump that the price of continuing pressure will be increased terrorism and war.
For the moment, Tehran has chosen the latter option. Sources in Washington have spoken of reports about heightened warnings of possible Iranian terror in Iraq and throughout the region as well as efforts to squeeze the West by threatening the flow of oil from the region through the Persian Gulf. The reported attempts at sabotage of oil tankers in the last few days are widely believed to be the work of Iranian agents.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also announced last week that the regime is initiating small steps toward producing nuclear fuel and to resume the production of nuclear centrifuges. But Tehran did not take any action to withdraw from the nuclear pact, yet another sign that it needs the deal more than the West does.
Much of the media attention on the current tension has focused on the terror warnings (which resulted in a partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad) and reports about Pentagon contingency plans for responding to Iranian military threats.
Does Iran Want War? Probably Not
But while no one should underestimate Iran’s capacity for terrorism—a tactic the Islamic Republic has regularly employed since its establishment in 1979—or the possibility of a miscalculation, it’s also clear that Tehran is no more interested in an open military conflict than Washington is.
Iran knows its forces cannot hope to prevail against the United States and such a conflict would likely end the theocratic regime. And no matter how much the Europeans despise Trump, any Iranian attack on Western targets would force them to side with the United States. That is also true of an Iranian decision to attempt a nuclear “breakout” that would allow them to produce a nuclear weapon in the next year or two.
But Iran still hopes their threats will convince Americans that the only possible choices available to them are war or a return to Obama’s policy of appeasement. That’s been the kneejerk reaction from liberal editorial boards and the chorus line of ex-Obama administration officials on CNN and MSNBC. They are sure that Trump is bungling his way to a war that the United States shouldn’t fight and can’t win.
Trump Should Trust His Instincts
But as with the original decision to abandon the nuclear pact despite the warnings from the foreign policy establishment, Trump’s instincts seem far keener than those of the so-called “experts.” While there are no guarantees of success, Iran’s war talk is a bluff it can’t back up. The regime can use its auxiliaries to strike soft targets or even seek to heat up the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But in its current economic straights, it cannot sustain a prolonged conflict without endangering its survival.
The president’s use of sanctions has brought the West back to the inflection point abandoned by Obama in 2013. Trump’s signals of his willingness to negotiate also give Iran an exit strategy that, sooner or later, it will be forced to take. Or at least it will be if the president doesn’t lose his nerve because of the misleading war panic his opponents are attempting to gin up.
Tough sanctions ruthlessly enforced have always been the formula to end Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism. The mistaken belief that war is the only alternative to surrender is what brought the ayatollahs their diplomatic triumph over Obama.
Trump needs to ignore the revived efforts of his predecessor’s media echo chamber to scare the country into abandoning sanctions. If he sticks to his willingness to make Iran pay a price they cannot afford, the result is far more likely to be an American diplomatic victory than a conflict that Washington has no intention of being drawn into.