Early last week Tehran announced its intention to enrich uranium above the level permitted by the nuclear deal to which it is a signatory. Over the weekend, soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attempted to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. The attack was retaliation for British forces seizing an Iranian tanker delivering oil to Syria in violation of E.U. sanctions on Damascus, but the wider context is Tehran’s threats to shut down oil exports from Persian Gulf states if American sanctions are not lifted.
Surprisingly, the international community—and countries in our region—are meeting Iran’s belligerence with apathy and a shrug of the shoulders. The blatant unwillingness to confront the Iranians could stem from dread of the regional bully menacing its neighbors both near and far. However, voices in the West are also expressing an understanding and even empathy toward Iran, which is perceived as a victim clawing for its life to fend off an aggressor—none other than U.S. President Donald Trump.
In Europe, Russia and even certain circles in the United States, it is largely accepted that the nuclear deal signed by former U.S. President Barack Obama successfully secured peace and quiet. In the wake of the nuclear deal, many believed—and still believe—that tensions in the Persian Gulf would subside, and they hoped Iran would subsequently focus on rehabilitating its crumbling economy and endeavor to seek acceptance in the family of nations. Trump, on the other hand, is presented as a crude violator of the nuclear deal who reinstated sanctions and pushed Tehran back to violence and terrorism.
A similar argument was made 80 years ago, according to which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt supposedly forced the leaders of Japan to attack Pearl Harbor by imposing painful sanctions on the country. But Iran today, similar to Japan in December of 1941, isn’t a peace-seeking country, but rather a belligerent regional power. Iran also doesn’t hide its expansionist ambitions, presently focused on the so-called Shi’ite crescent stretching from Tehran, through Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza and Yemen.
Obama essentially bought time, nothing more, in the hope that during the quiet years—purchased at a high cost—Iran would be appeased and become more moderate, and perhaps even see a regime change. History teaches us, however, that an aggressor can’t be placated with concessions and gestures of goodwill. Indeed, it will seize the first chance it gets to retrogress, having exploited the peaceful period to build its strength.
It wasn’t Trump who turned Iran into a monster. He didn’t force it on the path of violence and terrorism, and he isn’t the reason it is trying to conquer the Middle East. Iran’s essence—anchored in the ayatollahs’ fundamentalist and apocalyptic worldview—was established well before Trump entered office.
Iran doesn’t need to be appeased; it has to be curbed and subdued. It’s possible the world is on a collision course with Iran, but by taking the initiative and adopting an uncompromising approach the breadth and scope of a future conflict can be mitigated, or perhaps conflict can be prevented entirely.
Trump, incidentally, proposed establishing an international task force to ensure maritime safety in the Persian Gulf. The Americans made a similar proposal on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, in an attempt to safeguard Red Sea shipping routes to the Gulf of Eilat in southern Israel. But history informs us that only decisive U.S.-led measures, such as the military campaigns against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda or Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein, have a chance of succeeding.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.