The anti-Trump liberal media reacts excitably against anything associated with this administration, making it difficult to have a sensible discussion about Iran policy. Yet now is the time to question what the consequences of conflict would be. We used to ridicule the Bush administration for its primitive understanding of the region and ham-fisted approach to the 2003 Iraq war. The current administration inspires a hundred times less confidence that it could successfully implement regime change.
No regime on the planet is more deserving of being deposed than the terrorist, malevolent, expansionist regime in Tehran — but even its most partisan opponents don’t want Iran to explode into anarchy, with unpredictable long-term regional ramifications. Fifteen years after the disastrous Iraq war, we aren’t even close to the horrific consequences of this debacle fully playing out, including allowing Tehran to become an untrammeled regional force. The ayatollahs would be no more capable than Saddam of standing up to invasion, but once again it is the aftermath we should fear.
Even if Trump is stampeded by his generals into some hare-brained invasion, this is a man who couldn’t stomach the presence of a measly 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria for a few extra months. This is not an administration with the vision or tenacity to embark on a decade-long stabilization and nation-building enterprise. This is the man who suggested that America should compensate itself for the $2.4 trillion price-tag of the war by stealing all Iraq’s oil; his leading a major Middle Eastern military adventure is the stuff of nightmares.
There is also the prospect of a more limited military conflagration. Confrontation between Israel, Hezbollah and other proxies could draw in the US. When Iraqi militants fired mortars at a US diplomatic compound last year, Bolton requested options for a possible strike on Iran. Rouhani’s announcement of a return to prohibited activities, including producing highly enriched uranium (which has no peaceful purpose), makes future strikes against Iranian nuclear sites far more likely.
The ideal regime-change scenario would be effected by Iranians themselves. Given continuing high levels of civil unrest, such an aspiration is in the air, particularly if intensified sanctions go further toward making everyday life unlivable. Recent political transitions in Algeria and Sudan are a reminder that the domestically hated Tehran regime is long past its expiry date. However, removing the ayatollahs could pave the way for a Republican Guard takeover, led by megalomaniacal Persian supremacists such as Qassim Soleimani and Hossein Salami. Successful transition would thus require root-and-branch removal of this terrorist infrastructure.
If other global powers are disconcerted by Pompeo and Bolton’s belligerence, they must articulate an alternative vision for producing an Iran that isn’t a dynamo for regional militancy and global terrorism. European states should abandon unworkable efforts toward a sanctions-evasion mechanism, and contribute to pressure on the regime to change course. Just as European leaders in the 1930s paved the way for war by appeasing and condoning Hitler’s encroachments across Central Europe, the same states today consider they can live with Iranian expansionism, and perhaps the ayatollahs will be satisfied after devouring four Arab states. They are wrong.
Beijing and Moscow enjoy using Iran as a bogeyman to scare the West, yet they are the primary powers inconvenienced by Iranian expansionism in Central Asia and the Levant. Iranian efforts to destabilize Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain must be blocked. The unambiguous message must be that the regime must cease its meddling or cease to exist.
Rogue regimes such as the Islamic Republic really do understand only the language of military force; when Obama took that option off the table, the ayatollahs viewed it as an opportunity to get away with murder. The 2015 nuclear deal coincided with a massive upscaling of Iran-backed paramilitary activity in these afore-mentioned states. along with narcotics operations, money laundering and assassination attempts provocatively staged in the US itself. Nobody wants to resort to force, but no deterrent means no deterrent.
We nowadays scarcely even notice Trump’s ceaseless Twitter rants against Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and NATO. Instead, Tehran must hear the international community speaking responsibly with one voice, setting out red lines and credible consequences for malevolent overseas actions. The objective is to prevent Tehran and Washington embarking on a mutually-escalatory death-roll of provocations, paving the way for war.
Just days before his death in 2010, the Saudi intellectual and diplomat Ghazi Al-Gosaibi told me that Iran was a “cowardly nation” that sought to avoid direct military threats by arming proxies across Arab states to act as cannon fodder in defense of the Islamic Republic. Yet Iran’s warmongering rhetoric and actions will ultimately bring down war upon itself. Rational Iranians realize this and fear suffering the same cataclysms as Iraq as the price of their leaders’ recklessness. We don’t want Iranians to endure war. However, we should not be squeamish about setting out international commitments to supporting Iranians in implementing a successful democratic transition.
We used to talk about the now-departed restraining influences within Trump’s administration as the “adults in the room.” The world today needs adults in the diplomatic field to articulate a realistic policy for containment and transformation in Iran as the only means of heading off the unseemly desire of Trump’s hawks for fireworks over Tehran.
If we want to avoid Iran and the Middle East being at the center of the oncoming storm, let’s not wait passively for that storm to hit us. Change is coming to Iran. It is up to responsible global actors to proactively influence whether this change is for better or worse.