Donald Trump arrived in the White House in 2017 with few firm convictions or in-depth knowledge about America’s security challenges. But he did have instincts about policy that could have led him in two directions, especially with respect to Iran.
On the one hand, U.S. President Trump was something of an isolationist at heart—and not just because he choose a slogan for his foreign policy, “America First,” that resonated with the toxic debates about U.S. intervention in World War II. Trump’s belief that the Iraq war had been a disaster, combined with his opposition to “nation-building” in the Middle East, made it obvious that he wouldn’t countenance involving the United States in a war over anything but direct U.S. interests.
On the other, his equally strong distrust of the foreign-policy establishment is such that he was, more than any other president in memory, inclined to view the traditional U.S. approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the Obama administration’s attempt to deal with the Iran nuclear threat, as catastrophic mistakes.
That’s why the debate over who will be to blame if the United States somehow becomes embroiled in a war with Iran is not simply a matter of the administration’s critics lambasting the president for his alleged blundering or incompetence. Such a discussion is also inevitably one in which a scapegoat must be found for influencing Trump to make the choices he has made.
And that is where Israel enters the argument even though the attempt to blame the Jewish state for the possibility of war is not only false, but a dangerous attempt to foment hate.
Any confrontation so fraught with peril involving nations might lead to a miscalculation with unforeseen consequences. But neither country wants such an outcome.
Trump doesn’t want to preside over a war. Just as important, the Iranians have an even greater incentive to avoid war with the United States, despite threats to the contrary they have been issuing. Iran not only couldn’t win anything that involved open hostilities with the United States, the Islamist regime would likely not survive under those circumstances. And since the ayatollahs care deeply about the preservation of their theocratic tyranny, war isn’t in the cards.
More importantly, the idea that America has only two possible options with respect to Iran—war or appeasement in the form of a reinstatement of the Iran nuclear deal that was President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement—is wrong. That was the talking point endlessly shoved down the American people’s throat during the debate over the nuclear deal by the pliant media that former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes aptly called the former president’s “echo chamber.”
But that has always been a fabricated choice.
By withdrawing from the nuclear pact and then reinstating crippling sanctions on Iran, Trump has, in effect, turned back the calendar to 2013 when Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry began conceding point after point in nuclear negotiations that ultimately led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. That document let Iran keep its nuclear program, as well as allowed restrictions to eventually expire in exchange for a temporary halt to bomb work. That made it a virtual certainty that Iran will get its bomb. It not only enriched Iran, but also empowered it to escalate its support for terrorism, an illegal missile program and its quest for regional hegemony.
Trump’s critics thought that reimposing sanctions would be a flop. But Trump’s sanctions have had a devastating impact on Tehran, restricting their ability to fund terror. Some, like Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who have engaged in a Twitter tirade pretending that the nuclear deal dealt with all the problems that Trump is trying to fix, are revealing the disingenuous nature of the opposition to the administration’s Iran policy.
Iran is doing its best to bluster and bluff its way out of the corner into which Trump has forced them. Those who treat such threats as credible are doing Iran a favor. As long as Trump doesn’t back down, the inevitable result isn’t war, but rather the much-needed fix of the nuclear pact that has been needed since Obama and Kerry made it clear that they would pay any price for a deal. Trump has offered Iran an exit ramp from its dilemma via new talks, and those Westerners who are advising them (like Kerry) should tell them to take it.
Still, that hasn’t stopped some on the far left and the far right from claiming it was Israel that persuaded Trump to get tough on Iran. That argument is rooted in the same canards floated by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), contending that Israel and its supporters are buying Congress, and that the Trump administration is undertaking actions in the Jewish state’s interests, though not of America’s.
Israel has a stake in the conflict with Iran. But so do Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all of which are more fearful of the Iran that Obama bolstered than the Israelis. As much as Trump doesn’t want war or nation-building, it didn’t take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eloquence to persuade him to seek to stop Iran. He did so because it is the only rational course if the United States is to realize the goals that Obama claimed he was seeking to accomplish but did not.
The danger here is not only that Iran might think it can evade accountability for its rogue behavior by waiting until Trump is no longer in the White House, but that it will miscalculate and think that Americans won’t stand behind the administration on an issue where it is seeking to rectify a problem that it inherited. Even worse, those who think Israel’s supporters are unduly influencing Trump are fueling toxic traditional anti-Semitism, as well as providing undeserved support for a regime that Americans of all political stripes should wish to see brought to its senses—and perhaps, to its knees.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.