Not the time to go soft on Iran

Instead of focusing on Trump’s tweets, the administration is right to increase pressure on Iran with sanctions that can force it to back down on nukes and in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the Iranian American community in California on July 22, 2018. Screenshot: YouTube.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the Iranian American community in California on July 22, 2018. Screenshot: YouTube.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as most of the administration’s detractors were concerned, it was just another in a series of bizarre moments from U.S. President Donald Trump. The president’s tweet threatening Iran with “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” was widely condemned as ill considered or put down as an attempt to distract the public from other controversies.

But despite the puzzling contrast with Trump’s supine attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki—and the fact that most of us may never get used to the idea of a president of the United States using Twitter to issue blood-curling threats to American adversaries—the criticisms that have rained down on him for this episode are off-target. As hard as it may be for some of us to accept it, Trump is as right about Iran as he’s been wrong on Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the Iranian American community in California on July 22, 2018. Screenshot: YouTube.

Trump’s approach to foreign policy seems to be purely instinctive. As such, his record is one that can, at best, be described as hit and miss. His antagonism to NATO seems rooted in a kind of neo-isolationist mindset that is profoundly wrongheaded. But on some other issues—notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran—the president’s instinctual distrust of the foreign-policy establishment has led him in the right direction.

Eight years of appeasement by the Obama administration led to an increase in Iranian power and prestige in the region. The deal negotiated by the West had simply paused Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and enriched and empowered it, lending it a legitimacy the Islamist regime had only dreamed of since radical clerics and their followers seized power in 1979.

While Iran’s nuclear program was legalized by President Barack Obama, his desire to avoid confrontation with the regime led to America’s diffident attitude towards the unfolding disaster in Syria, as a civil war turned into the new century’s greatest humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions made homeless. Obama’s willingness to punt responsibility for the situation to Russia was a strategic failure. After years of atrocities carried out by the Assad regime’s forces and their Russia, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, the result wasn’t just that a barbarous dictator has retained power. America’s retreat led to the presence of Iranian armed forces on Israel’s northern border and the danger of a new war launched by an adversary dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state. However misguided Trump’s weak public posture towards Putin may be, he is actually following Israel’s lead, at least with respect to efforts to prod the Russians to help push the Iranians out of Syria and away from the border with the Jewish state.

But those who focus only on Russia and Trump’s tweet have missed what is a consistent policy when it comes to Iran, articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. On Sunday, Pompeo delivered yet another forceful and coherent analysis of the Iranian regime’s behavior, as well as its vulnerability to domestic protests. Iranians have had enough of a regime dedicated to inflicting brutal theocratic rule while diverting the country’s resources into foreign adventures and terrorism.

Pompeo’s labeling of Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism is actually a designation about which the Obama State Department concurred, even though its policies wound up feeding Tehran the resources to intensify its illegal and dangerous activities.

The secretary also rightly denounced the way Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have siphoned off their nation’s wealth to make themselves rich while ordinary Iranians continue to endure poverty and privation.

Pompeo signaled that America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal was not an irrational Trumpian whim. Rather, it is the start of an effort to put the squeeze on a gang of theocratic gangsters who bluffed their way to a position where their dreams of regional hegemony were boosted by a blind U.S. faith in a rapprochement and a European desire to profit from the collapse of sanctions.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—the man Obama foolishly boosted as a supposed “moderate” alternative to more extreme forces in Tehran—responded to Pompeo by issuing a threat that seemed straight out of the Saddam Hussein playbook when he said that any U.S. conflict with Iran would lead to “the mother of all wars.” It was to that brazen assertion that Trump responded with his own even more extreme threat.

Whether or not you think that presidents should tweet threats (with or without capital letters), the resolute message that the administration has been sending to Iran is exactly right. The only way to undo the damage done by Obama’s deal and the Iranian move into Syria is by tough diplomacy and sanctions, not more appeasement. That is the path to redrafting a nuclear agreement that, as it now stands, guarantees an Iranian bomb sooner or later. The administration also recognizes that among its goals is the need to get the Iranians out of Syria, and to nullify the threat they pose to both Israel and Sunni Arab nations.

Pompeo and perhaps even Trump also comprehend that while the Islamist regime may be pressured, Obama’s hopes that it wanted to “get right with the world” were hopelessly naive and misguided. That the United States is addressing its complaints directly to the Iranian people points to the ayatollah’s greatest weakness: the unpopular nature of their despotic regime. For too long, the United States mistook Iran’s bold aggression for strength and ignored the inherent weakness of its government. The fact that Trump has shifted to a more realistic attitude towards Iran is to be celebrated rather than deplored.

This clearheaded policy may be in stark contrast to the administration’s wrongheaded approach to Russia; still, it is nonetheless welcome. Instead of worrying about a Trump tweet that correctly signals Tehran that this president won’t be deceived by its lies, our attention should be focused on the beginning of a new push to end a rogue regime’s reign of terror.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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