Jonathan Tobin explains why now is the time for the U.S. to press harder on a staggering Iran.
The foreign-policy establishment was nearly unanimous last year when President Donald Trump decided to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. The so-called experts were all sure that it would never work. We were told that America couldn’t isolate Iran on its own because Europe wouldn’t let it happen. They also assured us that President Barack Obama had gotten the best possible bargain for the West, and that his attempt to bring Iran back into the community of nations and the global economy couldn’t be reversed.
But they were wrong. The proof that the sneering condescension of the “adults” and other smart people about Trump’s policy was misplaced is being illustrated on the streets of Iranian cities, where massive protests broke out Nov. 15.
The demonstrators were opposing massive hikes in gas prices that ranged from 50 percent to 300 percent for consumers. According to official Iranian news reports, 100 banks and 57 shops were set on fire, and two people were killed. The same government source said 1,000 protesters were arrested in what the country’s leaders derided as efforts to destabilize the regime inspired by agents of the “Great Satan” of the United States. In order to stop the protests from spreading, the government shut down internet access throughout the country.
What’s even more encouraging for opponents of this rogue government is that these rallies were echoed in both Lebanon and Iraq, where people also took to the streets to show their frustration and anger with pro-Iranian regimes that misgovern both of those nations.
The question now facing the West is whether it will recognize the weakness of the theocratic regime or — as was the case in 2013, when international sanctions nearly brought Tehran to its knees — the United States will back down and allow the ayatollahs to escape their dilemma with Western acquiescence and assistance? But as ironic as it may seem, that might be the route the Trump administration takes in the coming months.
Both enriched and empowered by the terms of a pact that actually ensured that Iran would eventually get a nuclear weapon, Tehran’s fantastic quest for regional hegemony has become a realistic goal. In the wake of its diplomatic triumph when Iranian bluffs led Obama to back down on virtually all his demands for an end to its nuclear program, Tehran vastly expanded its influence throughout the region.
But Trump and his team rightly understood that Iran’s growing strength was more illusion than reality. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, yet its efforts to dominate the Middle East rests on a shaky foundation. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps orchestrates its foreign adventures and is seemingly unchecked by any domestic or foreign antagonist. Still, it depends on being able to milk the nation’s economy in order to continue spreading mayhem.
That’s why the sanctions that the U.S. reimposed have the ability to tilt the balance of power away from Tehran. When faced with the choice of doing business with Iran or a United States determined to enforce sanctions, Europe chose the latter, despite its misgivings. That choked off Iran’s supply of foreign exchange; almost immediately, its terrorist henchmen in Syria and Lebanon began to feel the pinch. No amount of Iranian bluster or military provocations in the Gulf can cover up the fact that the theocrats are running out of money.
The ayatollahs think that further oppression is the only answer to a restive population that has had enough of their Islamist overlords. After 40 years of a reactionary government dedicated to stifling expressions of support for freedom, the Iranian people may indeed be ready for change.
This ought to be the moment when Trump further tightens the noose around the Iranian economy. Yet Trump is distracted by the Democrats’ impeachment effort and perhaps more interested in withdrawing from the Middle East than in exploiting a historic moment of Iranian weakness. He may be looking for an exit ramp from the confrontation, rather than seeking to continue to roll back the gains that Iran reaped from Obama.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced American support for the Iranian protests — a stark contrast to Obama’s obsequious silence during the 2009 mass protests against the regime that were crushed by brutal violence. However, Pompeo’s statement was not accompanied by measures designed to increase pressure on the Iranian’s population’s oppressors or to aid their efforts by somehow providing internet access inside the country.
Whether or not something like that is possible — and taking into account that any foreign intervention carries the risk of provoking a nationalist backlash — there is plenty the United States can do to make it harder on the tyrants of Tehran.
But if Trump’s intention is to begin backing away from the confrontation — either out of misguided belief that his “America First” principles requires the United States to avoid further conflicts or because he thinks he can make a better deal than Obama — then he will squander this opportunity. That would be a tragic mistake.
To date, the president has resisted the advice of those who, like Obama, believe the only choices available to the United States on Iran are appeasement and war. Though the path ahead for the United States is fraught with dangers that should not be underestimated, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy cannot be abandoned prematurely.
The diplomats who enthusiastically carried out Obama’s appeasement and now seek to resist Trump’s efforts were wrong all along about Iran. Now is the moment to press harder on Iran. The alternative would be to ensure the continuation in power of a tyrannical regime that is bent on spreading terror throughout the region.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.