Counts on a Divided West
By Reuel Marc
Trump has revived most of the U.S. sanctions on Iran that were dropped during
Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. More sanctions are
coming. But to halt Iran’s march toward enriched uranium and functional
ballistic missiles for good, the White House must convince more Americans and
U.S. allies to join in raising pressure on the regime. The fruits of Tehran’s
imperialism won’t wither until the world chokes its roots.
in the background of the Trump administration’s efforts is the 2020 election,
after which a Democratic president could reverse Mr. Trump’s progress.
Democrats’ views on Iran are still shaped by Mr. Obama’s approach to the
nuclear deal. They continue to play down Tehran’s regional aggression and
especially its role in the slaughter in Syria and Yemen, and they have recast
President Hassan Rouhani as a reformer despite his role as an enforcer of the
mullahs’ police state. “Engaging” Tehran, restoring the nuclear deal, and
reducing America’s presence in the Middle East are a gospel for progressive
Democrats, who loathe Mr. Trump and aren’t enamored of Israel, Sunni Arabs or
the region’s machtpolitik.
contrast, President Trump’s sanctions-centered policy deprives Tehran of
billions in hard currency each year and impedes its strategic ambitions. Yet
it’s unlikely that the Trump administration’s ultimate goal, be it a new
nuclear agreement or the theocracy’s collapse, can be achieved in the next two
years. The Iranian regime is tenacious. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is
probably the most accomplished modern Middle Eastern dictator. Many of the
mullahs and Revolutionary Guardsmen who rule it lived through the horrific
Iran-Iraq War. They are far more brutal than the shah and his generals before
by the poor and middle class have unsettled the regime since last December, but
Mr. Khamenei knows how to manage dissent. As long as the protests don’t boil
over into massive disorder, they might actually help the regime by allowing
public outrage to vent and revealing to the security services potential leaders
of a larger insurrection.
a more aggressive play by the U.S., this regime is unlikely to fold on its
ambitions. The mullahs have thrown billions of dollars at the development of
nuclear weapons in good times and bad. Even if sanctions reduce the regime’s
oil sales to fewer than a million barrels a day, the earnings will be enough to
keep the regime’s security services loyal absent a massive popular revolt.
the fear of a possible military attack hasn’t moved Iran to halt its nuclear
program. According to nuclear-weapons experts David Albright and Olli Heinonen,
who have reviewed Iranian archives captured in 2016 by Israeli intelligence,
Tehran didn’t freeze its nuclear program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in
2003, as American intelligence asserted with “high confidence” in 2007 and
Obama officials continuously regurgitated. Today’s sanctions can’t possibly
match the fear that George W. Bush provoked in Tehran when American tanks raced
toward Baghdad. And the development of advanced centrifuges is cheaper than it
used to be. Mr. Heinonen believes Iran likely has significant undeclared
stockpiles of the required materiel.
of the most troubling aspects of Mr. Obama’s agreement was the lack of access
to Iran’s nuclear personnel, files and suspicious sites. This blind spot
persists today without an agreement. The clerical regime could still be
developing nuclear technology and the Central Intelligence Agency likely
picture isn’t much prettier across the region. Iran controls vast territory
through its proxies in Iraq and Syria. The war in Yemen also is an exceptionally
good deal for the regime, with minimal expenditures and high returns in the form
of pressure on rival Saudi Arabia. Iran’s battle-tested Shiite foreign legions
do entail costs. But after 40 years of cash and materiel shortages, the regime
has learned how to wage imperialism on the cheap.
Trump administration has weakened its leverage by appearing unwilling to counter
Iran’s advances with military pressure. Washington largely has left Israel
with the responsibility for containing the Revolutionary Guard. Fear of Sunni
jihadists and Iranian reprisals—as well as the lack of congressional
authorization for lethal covert action—has frustrated ambitions for a U.S.
campaign to bleed the Shiite empire through low-cost guerrillas. The U.S.
won’t do to Iran what Iran did to American troops in Iraq. Unfortunately, the
Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis simply can’t handle such a task without American
administration needs to play a longer game. The U.S. should increase and sustain
pressure long enough for Iran’s massive internal contradictions to crack the
theocracy. A renewed bipartisan consensus about the clerical regime’s
wickedness is an essential condition, ensuring the effort is sustained into the
next presidency. The administration must also persist in its effort to unite the
developed world against Iran’s aggression.
debunk the Obama narrative of Iran, the Trump administration should highlight
more vividly the regime’s savagery abroad and brutality at home. The
Democratic Party and Western European countries are likely to resist as long as
Mr. Trump is president, but there’s no harm in trying. It will be hard for
progressives to trash a foreign policy built explicitly on advancing human
rights and democracy once the crimes of Mr. Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister
Mohammad Javad Zarif are fully exposed. The regime’s proclivity to assassinate
expatriate dissidents—which crescendoed in the 1990s when President Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani and his fixer, Mr. Rouhani, were in power—is growing again.
nuclear deal’s restrictions on sales to Iran of conventional weapons and
ballistic-missile technology will sunset in 2020 and 2023, respectively.
Democrats and Europeans should recognize the potential dangers and inject more
muscle and conscience into their foreign policies.
Trump and many Republicans have been reluctant to promote democracy and civil
society overseas. They would be wise to overcome this hesitation and play every
card they have against the regime to build the broader base of support, at home
and abroad. The clock is ticking.