By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
I will admit that this sounds perverse, but Iran’s recent ballistic missile test was welcome in one important sense. Let me explain.
Just more than a fortnight into President Donald Trump’s administration, America and the world have been bombarded with all sorts of crises, to the extent that it feels as if two years of history has been packed into two weeks. Relations with Mexico are at their lowest ebb in more than a century. The administration continues to exasperate, most likely intentionally, European heads of state with its on again, off again comments about the long-term health of the European Union and NATO. Trump even boasted of yelling at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the stalwart U.S. ally Australia, over a previous agreement reached with the Obama administration concerning the fate of a handful of refugees.
And then along came Iran with its firing of a ballistic missile Jan. 29, in open defiance of the nuclear deal its signed with the Obama administration and other Western governments, which urges Iran not to develop ballistic missiles until the eighth year of the deal kicks in. That was quickly followed by reports that Iran had test-fired a cruise missile, the Sumar, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and has a potential range of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), meaning that it is well within reach of Israel and the European continent.
If we needed a salutary reminder that some threats should be ranked above others, then the Islamist regime in Tehran provided one. Dismissing American concerns with a cheap swipe at Trump’s “Muslim travel ban”—whatever else it may be, it is not that—Iran deployed Defense Minister Hossein Deghan, who also holds the rank of brigadier-general in the terrorist Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to present the missile activities as a routine defensive measure.
“We have no other aim but to defend our interests and in this path we will neither seek permission nor allow anyone to interfere,” Deghan declared. Given that this is the very same Deghan who revealed, following a March 2015 test of the very same Sumar cruise missile, that the regime’s goal is to boost the precision and destructive power of these weapons, it is reasonable to conclude that defense of Iran’s interests means having the ability to annihilate Iran’s neighbors.
Away from the fervid rhetoric and intellectually insulting spin on all sides that has accompanied Trump’s first steps into the world of governing, Iran represents a marked contrast when it comes to the clarity of the challenge it poses. By any standard, Iran’s regime stands out as a clear and present threat to the Western world. And even as we agonize over what is to become of that world, we need to recognize that the primary goal is to save it. Israel and the conservative Sunni-Arab states may be first in Iran’s firing line, but only a fool would conclude that they are last as well.
In that sense, the Trump administration’s response to the missile test was heartening in one very simple sense: it noticed.
Whereas Obama would have done his utmost to play down its significance, Trump’s advisers accurately portrayed the test as a statement of Iran’s true intentions. If there really is an influential “moderate” wing of the regime, as Obama and his administration’s Secretary of State John Kerry always insisted was the case, then it now faces a different kind of test, political and not military in nature: Will it, or can it, restrain future missile firings? Does it grasp that the Trump administration’s lack of detail over the method of its coming response (all we know is that Tehran is “on notice”) actually makes its country less secure, since in theory all options are on the table at a time when escalation could turn out to be very rapid? If there is a moderate leader in Iran who can turn the tide, then he—trust me on this, it’s invariably a “he”—should act quickly, or else confirm what we’ve known all along. Namely, that the IRGC, whose main purpose is to export the Islamic Revolution, is the real power broker behind Iran’s leaders.
Indeed, if I were that moderate Iranian leader, I would find very little of comfort in what is being said in Washington these days. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), said this week that global banks should be prevented from conducting U.S. dollar transactions with their Iranian counterparts. The ranking Democrat on that committee, New York’s U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, asserted that in our dealings with the Iranians, we should “never, never trust them,” adding that designations against human rights abusers and sanctions targeting the IRGC should be stepped up. Trump himself also indicated that he understands the nature of Iran’s grand strategy, remarking on Twitter that Tehran wields increasing control over neighboring Iraq. All of this supports the conclusion that the rose-tinted spectacles have been removed and that the gloves are off.
The Iranians can glean further clues to the changing atmosphere in Washington in the current discussion of the equally pressing security threat posed by North Korea. Speaking to a Senate committee hearing on North Korea last week, two leading experts, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, gave a sobering account of what happens when a rogue regime successfully acquires nuclear weapons.
Eberstadt explained that Americans now have to recognize “two highly unpleasant truths” about North Korea. First, that it will never voluntarily give up its nuclear option. Second, that engagement can never produce “a denuclearization of the real existing North Korea.” Added Snyder, “Kim Jong Un has decided, based on lessons from Iraq, Iran and Libya, that North Korea must be too nuclear to fail.”
Iran’s leaders want to be able to make the same determination. After four years of denial of this reality, the American public is again in a position to understand its potency. That is the best place to start.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism”(Edition Critic, 2014).
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