In the lead-up to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly next week, President Donald Trump has been almost begging the Iranian regime to sit down and start negotiating a new nuclear deal. Instead, Iran apparently decided to launch drones and possibly cruise missiles against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. In other words, what Trump wants is not going to happen.
Since then, the regime in Tehran has only ratcheted up the rhetoric, promising “all-out war” if America dares to retaliate. However, if Trump doesn’t respond militarily with some conviction — after failing to do so after U.S. officials blamed the Iranians in the downing of a U.S. drone and for ship attacks in the Gulf this summer — the White House will be giving the ruling clerics a green light for even more brazen actions.
Whether the president wants it or not, he’s now in the defining duel of his presidency with the most accomplished Middle Eastern dictator since World War II.
Whether the president wants it or not, he’s now in the defining duel of his presidency with the most accomplished Middle Eastern dictator since World War II, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What the president ought to do, and probably won’t, is realize that he can’t deal his way out of this confrontation, that he must militarily check the Islamic Republic in the Gulf, and opt for the true solution to our Iranian theocratic problem: the clerical regime’s dissolution.
On the left and right, the phrase “regime change” often provokes aspersions against “neocons,” “hawks” and “liberal interventionists” who are prepared to use American power against aggressive tyrants. Despite the travails of Iraq and Afghanistan, this hostility is historically odd for an American since it traduces the greatest accomplishment of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy — the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Regime change neither mandates U.S. invasions nor even a particularly muscular support of those who want to free themselves from oppression. Any containment strategy against a revolutionary, expansionist enemy is a policy of regime change.
Countering such an enemy does oblige the United States to risk conflict, though, and respond militarily if redlines are crossed — as they have been by Iran in recent days — just as Washington continuously did throughout the Cold War with the USSR, Communist China and their allies.
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Advocating such a foreign policy denotes inextricable moral and strategic choices: that an enemy is sufficiently malevolent and convulsive that it should be checked. Until President Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans, more or less, had considerable common ground concerning the Islamic Republic.
To wit: that the regime was a virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic revolutionary state, seeking wherever possible to create and back Islamic forces in its own image, with a repugnant proclivity for using terrorism as statecraft and soulcraft (as is apparent in a number of Iranian VIP autobiographies, use of this tactic makes the Iranian elite feel good). Ergo: that it was not in America’s interest to see Iran’s influence spread; its mullahs and its Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has overseen the nuclear weapons program from its inception, should not have the bomb.
Fleeing from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing America as a clumsy, even baleful, Goliath, and supremely confident in his own abilities, Obama reached out to Iran as soon as he was elected. With the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran in 2013— an architect of the Islamic Republic’s police state who believed that it was worthwhile to trade a temporary respite from Iran’s nuclear ambitions for tens of billions in hard currency, foreign trade and investment — Obama started depicting the Islamic Republic in a more hopeful light.
His administration rarely expressed criticism of Iranian complicity in the vast slaughter in Syria, which by 2015 Tehran was leading on the ground with its own forces and allied Shiite militias. Understandably. We were negotiating a nuclear deal with a mass murder who was sure to use the hard currency released by Washington to fund sectarian bloodshed and imperialism.
Obama’s dream of an atomic accord — secret diplomacy commenced in 2012— had led him to make ever-greater nuclear concessions. Obama’s desire to escape the Middle East, and appease the Islamic Republic, married well with Khamenei’s and Rouhani’s determination to use the nuclear program to make the West pay. (In a less politically correct age, we called that blackmail.)
But Obama still wanted to see regime change in the Islamic Republic. There is no reason to doubt his expressed wish to see Muslims in the Middle East live freely. He just wanted to believe that diplomatic engagement and commerce were the vehicles for transforming the theocracy into something more palatable.
For the ruling Iranian elite, however, the opposite was surely true: The more the United States reached out to Khamenei and his men, the more they loathed America, which is always trying to use its culture and soft power to undermine Islam and the revolution. The supreme leader’s constant fulminations against the United States may well have intensified after the initial deal was struck. So, too, internal oppression.
We are in an ironic situation: After 40 years, the United States is finally on the cusp of a somewhat serious regime-change policy (via its sanctions, which are now at least crippling), brought to us by a president who doesn’t believe in regime change. What President Ronald Reagan was after with the Soviet Union and the entire West with apartheid South Africa seems too ethically ambitious for a man who ran against American hegemony in 2016.
It’s a pity. The Islamic Republic appears in much worse shape than the Soviet Union was when famed diplomat George Kennan published his “X” article in 1947 spelling out what America’s strategy should be, or when Reagan pithily defined his own grand strategy in 1977 (“We win; they lose”).
The big tensions in Iran are getting worse: between theocracy and democracy, Islamism and nationalism, rich and poor, ever-more independent women and their male overlords, and the aspiring and seriously underemployed college-educated, who now number in the millions, and the ruling clergy’s cronies with easy access to regime-dispensed jobs.
What was perhaps most striking about provincial protests that broke out in 2017-18 was the lack of anti-American animus — given Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the re-imposition of punishing unilateral U.S. sanctions at that time.
Regime change neither mandates U.S. invasions nor even a particularly muscular support of those who want to free themselves from oppression.
Despite decades of unrelenting propaganda against “the Great Satan,” despite U.S. sanctions and even military clashes, the Iranian people have become much less anti-American. The massive pro-democracy Green Movement protests in 2009, which took the regime to “edge of the abyss” according to Khamenei, were positively pro-American: Protestors regularly appealed directly to Obama for support. (He didn’t give it.)
Washington may eventually deploy a serious containment policy against Tehran. Trump may realize that Khamenei isn’t going to relent, that the “good” nuclear deal he says he wants — something that does more than temporarily restrain the regime’s nuclear weapons quest — isn’t possible with Tehran.
If the president finally goes after Iran’s internal contradictions, as he should, he will have put himself, whether he knows it or not, in the mainstream of post-World War II American history, even if the isolationist right and most of the Democratic Party objects most strenuously.