By Reuel Marc Gerecht
When President Trump withdrew the United States from his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran last May, he set in motion what he wanted to avoid, a possible military confrontation with the clerical regime. President Barack Obama and his minions, mainly the ever-polemical deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, hyperventilated about the imminence of war with Iran if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a disingenuous name for a defective agreement, wasn’t followed. But they weren’t lying about the possibility of conflict if Tehran didn’t scale back its nuclear ambitions.
That fear certainly affected Republicans, with critics of the deal as ardent in expressing their pacific intentions as they were their opposition to the deal. No nuke, no deal, no war might be an untenable position as it depends heavily on the Iranian clergy and their praetorians, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who oversee the regime’s atomic program.
The Obama administration’s fearmongering was particularly artful, for the president probably wouldn’t have struck the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear facilities regardless of how many centrifuges were enriching uranium or whether a heavy-water, plutonium-producing reactor came online. The nuclear accord was so deficient — quickly expiring sunset clauses; no access to Iranian nuclear documents, personnel, and military sites; continuing Iranian development of ballistic missiles; and massive sanctions relief subsidizing Iranian imperialism — precisely because it was perhaps the best deal Washington could get when Tehran knew Obama didn’t want a fight and wanted an agreement more than did Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
There’s more fear of conflict today because Trump can sound like a hawk or a dove, and because he is advised by two longtime hard-liners, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It’s more real also because the mullahs decided to test Washington’s mettle in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. Navy still holds sway.
Besides downing a U.S. drone, Tehran has now probably attacked ships six times in the past two months, four in May off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and two in the Gulf of Oman in June. So far, Washington has not responded militarily, though it’s a near certainty that Bolton recommended military action against naval units of the Revolutionary Guards, that have trained for decades to lay mines quickly.
Tellingly, the felled unmanned drone elicited more presidential anger than attacks on foreign tankers. Trump was on course to let loose a retaliatory missile and air assault against Iranian installations. In response to the tanker hits, senior U.S. military officers said other powers should assume more responsibility for protecting free navigation, a role America has had since Britain withdrew from the region in 1971. In other words, Tehran could continue to attack non-American tankers, and the U.S. Navy might do nothing.
It was inevitable that the clerics would challenge Trump after he walked away from the nuclear deal. American financial sanctions have become crippling, for they can prevent the use of dollars in commercial transactions anywhere in the world. The Trump administration expanded sanctions, fortifying non-nuclear measures, especially against the Revolutionary Guards, a designated terrorist organization. The White House is sanctioning directly the supreme leader and the vast business empire he controls. Iran’s glib foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom many Democrats appear to have on speed dial, is getting targeted. The White House is creating a sanctions wall that will be difficult for a Democratic administration to dismantle. Would a Democratic president declare the Revolutionary Guard Corps nonterrorist as its forces continue to slaughter thousands of Syrian civilians and transfer weaponry and money to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas? It’s doubtful.
Since last May, Tehran has lost billions in hard currency, without which third-world regimes, especially those with 80 million people accustomed to buying first-world products, can’t grow and risk an economy-killing inflationary spiral. Tehran’s Shiite imperialism in the Middle East has always been on the cheap, but it does demand hard currency. Without exporting a million barrels of oil a day — In May, Iran exported at most 500,000 barrels — the Islamic Republic’s vast welfare state, which buys loyalty from the lower classes, is probably unsustainable.
But even so, the clerical regime’s challenge remains indirect. So far, Iran has not attempted military action against Americans, of U.S. installations or shipping. Downing a drone is probably the most extreme provocation Khamenei is willing to approve at this point. If Tehran doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to respond directly to the Israeli air assaults against Revolutionary Guard and Shiite militia in Syria — Jerusalem has been pummeling these forces since last May — it’s unlikely that Revolutionary Guard commanders want to take on a superpower. All senior Guard officers remember the depressing outcome of the Iran-Iraq War, when America’s de facto alignment with Saddam Hussein and the accidental destruction of an Iran Air flight by the USS Vincennes in 1988 led Iran’s leadership to sue for peace.
An American frontal assault could severely stress the theocracy internally, where it is weakest. Widespread provincial demonstrations, which started in December 2017 and have yet to peter out, shocked the clerics, for it was the lower classes, the theocracy’s bedrock supporters, who took to the streets. These demonstrations never became anti-American, even though the ruling elite tried hard to blame its problems, especially the dismal economy, on Washington. Intellectually honest members of the regime sometimes reveal they know that anti-Americanism is no longer a sufficiently galvanizing force. It’s even possible that the enemy of my enemy has become my friend. It would be deeply humbling for the theocracy, which has often ridiculed the United States for being cowardly before Islam and the Islamic Republic, to have America lay low the Revolutionary Guards. The new Guard commander, Hossein Salami, described the United States as having “pooki-ostokhan” a form of osteoporosis, that is, too feeble to fight. He would have to eat considerable crow if Trump sank his navy.
Bravado aside, the regime is willing to take the United States on indirectly, push military operations against non-American targets, use allied Shiite militias against Americans if not done blatantly, and use terrorism in Europe against annoying Iranian dissidents, the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, who pay famous Americans to speak at their rallies. Killing dissidents in Europe likely gives the supreme leader enormous satisfaction since he loathes dissidents and Europeans, who have proven feckless. The mullahs also know Washington has a poor record of punishing them, even when they have drawn American blood.
Trump’s decision to cancel a military strike against Iran conveys indecisiveness and timidity. If the Pentagon doesn’t push back soon, Tehran will up the ante to see if it can make Trump blink at escalating provocations. It is what the clergy did with the nuclear program, once it was disclosed in 2002. Incremental progress led to Western acquiescence, which led to further progress and a new baseline. We can be confident this is what Khamenei, a creature of habit, will again do. He will challenge Trump to do something about slowly rising levels of uranium enrichment and escalating actions in the Persian Gulf. The clerical regime has just crossed the enrichment threshold established by the Iran deal. Further increases in the stockpile of uranium and its purity will surely follow.
The president, unfortunately, has faltered badly. So have senior military officers who don’t seem to understand that unanswered attacks against foreign tankers will probably embolden Iran. If the U.S. Navy had responded decisively by, for example, using helicopter gunships against the Revolutionary Guards’ fast-attack boats, after Fujairah, it’s likely the attacks in the Gulf of Oman wouldn’t have happened. It’s also likely the drone would still be flying.
It’s in the clerical regime’s interest to sow as much discord as possible in the Persian Gulf, to upset the oil and insurance markets, shrink supply, and wound the Saudis, hoping to drive the price of crude higher. For Tehran, chaos is a ladder.
Trump’s preferences and policies aren’t lining up. He was never going to diminish America’s footprint in the Middle East and walk away from the Iran deal. He was never going to be able to choke the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table without the clerics unleashing violence. In our fear of “quagmires” and “endless war,” we have forgotten the recurring truth that violence postponed often produces far more violence later.
Many Republicans wanted to believe in 2015 that there was a third way, a nonkinetic means to coerce the Islamic Republic to behave better. Trump appears to have the same hope. But the Iranian elite raped its own in 2009 to stop the pro-democracy Green Movement from toppling the theocracy. Sanctions alone are unlikely to bring such men to heel. Obama surreally recast President Hassan Rouhani as a “moderate” when in truth he was a founding father of the clerical police state. The aim was to make America’s retreat from the region more palatable. Post-Obama Democrats may no longer even care about appearances. They want to get out of the Middle East. They seem to think we can run and that this time around we won’t get sucked back in. For them, all wars are wars of choice.
Do the Republicans think so much differently? Does Trump?
Mr. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
This article was originally published on July 05, 2019 by the Washington Examiner. For accessing the original version of the article, please click on this link.