By Michael C. McCarthy
President Obama was dishonest while empowering Iran. President Trump is incoherent while squeezing Iran. Obviously, the latter is better. But can it work in the long term?
Trump wisely renounced Obama’s non-binding nuclear deal with the mullahs, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Even if its murky terms were followed, the JCPOA would put Iran on a glide path toward becoming a nuclear-weapons power. Besides permitting the regime to continue enriching uranium and operating advanced centrifuges, the JCPOA infused Tehran with desperately needed funding (mainly in the form of sanctions relief) while obliging the United States to support its development of an industrial strength nuclear energy program (purportedly for civilian purposes only).
Moreover, Obama lined Iran’s pockets with $1.7 billion in cash and other curious money transfersthat could easily be diverted to the regime’s support for international terrorism. Simultaneously, he incentivized the regime to abduct more Americans by making these cash payments a ransom for hostages. Yet, the JCPOA did not even make a pretense of curbing Iran’s promotion of jihadist violence (Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism), nor did it abate Iran’s ballistic-missile programs.
President Trump has reimposed sanctions on Iran and deftly pressured other nations (in particular, foreign corporations and financial institutions) to resist dealing with Iran for fear of being cut off from the U.S. financial system. Increasingly a pariah, Iran has seen its oil and gas export revenues shrivel and its economy contract, and it has been forced to tap its fast-diminishing foreign-currency reserves in order to finance its basic needs as well as its military aggression.
Put succinctly, the Death to America regime is facing an existential crisis. The intense economic pressure from without is intensifying the political opposition from within. The restive population, whose 2009 uprisings drew no meaningful support from Obama, is stirring again.
The “maximum pressure” policy is paying dividends. The same cannot be said for the president’s rhetoric.
On Monday, Trump took pains to stress that he is “not looking for regime change” in Iran. He is, instead, “looking for no nuclear weapons.” This is wrong on multiple levels. The regime is the problem in Iran, and has been since 1979. If not for the fact that Iran is ruled by revolutionary jihadists committed to exporting their repressive system, the prospect of nuclear arms would concern us far less. And, indeed, the JCPOA that Trump rightly rejected highlights the folly of his “no nukes” drivel. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran has been responsible for global mayhem, including the killing of hundreds of American troops, mainly through material support to both Sunni and Shiite terror networks.
Regime change has gotten a bad rap in the post-9/11 era. That owes to the farce of sharia-democracy promotion with which it is closely linked. Americans hear “regime change” and they understandably assume it means invasion, endless occupation, and the futile sacrifice of American blood and treasure while we undertake to plant Western institutions in a culture implacably hostile to them.
This has led to a favorite Trump trope — music to Rand Paul’s ears — that he must resist commencing “endless wars” and abandon the ones we are purportedly in. The reality is that we have not been in “endless wars”; we have been in endless occupations. The combat phases in Afghanistan and Iraq, targeting the jihadist organizations and their supporting regimes that facilitated anti-American terrorism, were swift and successful. What bogged us down was the costly sociology experiment, built on a fiction that never had public support, that our own liberty and security hinges on the promotion of freedom in the Muslim-majority countries where jihadism thrives.
I’m prepared to concede that the invasion of Iraq (which I endorsed) was a mistake. But only because of the way it was carried out. The Bush administration said it was targeting all regimes that supported terrorism. It then proceeded to prioritize Iraq, which was far less a culprit than Iran, and to bog down in an Iraqi democracy project that drained American public support. This not only insulated Iran from comeuppance for its anti-American terrorism (which, naturally, increased); it enabled Iran to expand its regional influence, especially in Iraq.
The post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan was a necessity, al-Qaeda having struck us from there with the support of the Taliban government. But again, we undertook the impossible task of building Western democracy, yet never committed to quelling the Taliban. Now, we are preparing to leave — after years of pretending that the Taliban was moderating so we could rationalize negotiating with them, even as they remained allied with al-Qaeda and fought the U.S.-backed government. As the invaluable Tom Joscelyn has been warning for years, the unchastened Taliban, having scoffed at our entreaties, is poised to reestablish control and restore the pre-9/11 status quo — a brutal sharia government that provides safe haven for America’s jihadist enemies.
These are not “endless wars”; they are fitful wars from which we cannot easily extricate ourselves because our objectives were overly ambitious and we never committed to defeating our enemies. More to the point, the term “endless war” is senseless as applied to Iran. Regardless of our position on the matter, Iran has been at war with us for 40 years. If the adversary is determined attack you, it is not in your power to avoid war by pronouncing that you do not desire war. You can practice restraint, and that might even be the right thing to do in some circumstances, but you can’t avoid a fight when the other guy is punching you.
The president was probably right to practice restraint when Iran downed our drone — an MQ-4 Global Hawk — as it conducted surveillance over international waters on June 20. Significantly, this was not a one-off. As recounted by Bill Roggio (Tom Joscelyn’s partner at the Long War Journal), it was the third attack on an unmanned U.S. aerial vehicle in the last three weeks. That is in addition to Iran’s multiple attacks on tankers near the Persian Gulf, as well as attacks on American forces and civilian targets in Iraq.
Trump called off a retaliatory military strike after the June 20 attack. That, however, was not restraint in a vacuum. It was restraint within the context of an ongoing economic pressure campaign that is gradually strangling the regime. Plus, there may well have been a retaliatory strike by U.S. Cyber Command — not as patent as a missile attack, but enough to get Iran’s attention. The president did not lash out with more deadly force because he understood that this is what the mullahs wanted him to do. They are not worried about the killing of a few hundred Iranians (persecuting Iranians is what they do). Their hope is that an American military attack would incite protests in the U.S. and Europe, which would pressure Trump to relent and thus free Europeans to resume lucrative commerce with Tehran.
The president did not fall for it. That’s the good part. The bad part is the way he aborted the missile attack. He offered a specious explanation that a retaliatory strike that killed scores of Iranians would be “disproportionate.”
This misconstrues the concept of proportionality. It is not a tit-for-tat comparison of attacks by each side of a conflict. It is a weighing of the military benefit of an operation against the likely collateral damage. There is no doubt that the planned attacks on radar and missile batteries, which would suppress Iran’s capacity for lethal attacks, were proportionate. Iran, moreover, kills massively and indiscriminately. In any event, the president will only hem himself in if, in effect, he allows the mullahs to define the permissible scope of any responsive strike.
Finally, the president says both that he wants to avoid war (i.e., the war Iran is already fighting) and that he will not tolerate Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. But how, then, is he planning to stop the mullahs from obtaining nukes? Let’s say Iran proceeds openly with weapons development but does not conduct any major attacks against American interests while doing so; how — given Trump’s determination to avoid war, and his understanding of “disproportionate” uses of force — is he planning to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power?
No one wants an all-out war with Iran. Americans have no interest in invading and occupying another Muslim country — least of all Iran. Its rich culture and sophisticated populace provide grounds for hope that we can have cordial relations with Iran in the future. But the current impediment to cordial relations, and the reason nuclear weapons would be intolerable, is the regime. It is one of the world’s most despicable governments, and it is incorrigibly anti-American.
So, of course our goal should be regime change. No, we don’t want to invade to achieve it, but it should still be our objective. The president should not be shy about saying so, or about turning all levers of government power (political, diplomatic, legal, and covert, as well as military and financial) in that direction. It would be a good way of setting expectations for the mullahs, for the craven European governments that want us to appease the mullahs, and for the Iranian people we would like to see rise up against the mullahs.
And the president should drop the nonsense about “disproportionate” attacks and “endless wars.” If he is really serious about stopping Tehran from developing nukes, then he must convince the regime that he is keeping all options on the table — especially the ones he hopes never to use.
Mr. Micheal McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.
This article was originally published on June 29, 2019 by the National Review. For the original version of this article, please click on this link.