Daniel Larison

More Sanctions = More Suffocation of the Iranian People

Having created the crisis with Iran by waging economic war on the country, the Trump administration is preparing to escalate the economic war even further:

The Trump administration already moved this spring to cut off all revenues from Iranian oil exports, the lifeblood of the nation’s economy, and the new sanctions are expected to be aimed at shutting down additional sources of income with the goal of forcing political change in Tehran.

Mr. Trump and his top foreign policy aides are gambling that continuing the squeeze on Iran will compel its leaders to buckle to demands to limit their nuclear program in ways that go beyond the landmark agreement that major world powers forged with Iran in 2015 — and that Mr. Trump withdrew from last year.

The illegitimate reimposition of sanctions on Iran is the main cause of increased tensions between our governments, and piling on additional sanctions can only make those tensions worse. The more pressure that the U.S. puts on the Iranian government, the less willing the Iranian government will be to make concessions. They are determined to resist the pressure campaign, and that means that intensifying the campaign just suffocates ordinary people even more. The economic war on Iran is cruel and unjustified, and it is not going to get the administration what it wants.

Salar Abdoh, an Iranian novelist, wrote a very important op-ed last week describing the effects of the sanctions on the people in Iran:

One of the few stores on 30 Tir Street that still attracts customers is run by Abbasi, a retired army officer who repairs household gadgets — people cannot afford to buy new stuff. “Well, isn’t this already war?” he asked, without much rancor. It’s a question many Iranians ask themselves these days.

Since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions last year, Iran’s oil exports have fallen by more than half, the Iranian rial has lost more than 60 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year and inflation has reached 37 percent. The Iranian economy contracted by 4 percent in 2018 and is expected to contract by 6 percent this year.

The sanctions are ultimately about individual lives: a relative’s immunosuppressive meds after a liver transplant suddenly skyrocketing in price and nearly disappearing from the market; a painter of some renown ceasing to practice her craft after 30 years because of the now prohibitive cost of art material; young professionals without jobs leaving Tehran in large numbers to try their luck in smaller, less expensive towns.

The price of paper has increased fivefold; the price of car parts, four times. Most fruits have become luxury items, many families can’t afford meat and factories in the provinces are shutting down.

The predictable result of the destructive Iran policy has been to destroy the hopes and aspirations of Iranians and to deprive them of the things they need to live and work. This is a policy that cuts off the sick from access to their medicine and ruins the lives of innocent strangers in a vain effort to compel a government these people don’t control to abandon what the government believes to be core security interests. The weakest and most vulnerable members of society pay the highest price for policies they can’t change, and the demands are so onerous and excessive that no self-respecting government would ever agree to them.

The Trump administration remains wedded to the delusion that they can force Iran’s capitulation:

“The administration is not really interested in negotiations now,” said Robert Einhorn, a former senior State Department official who was involved in negotiations with Iranian officials during the Obama administration. “It wants to give sanctions more time to make the Iranians truly desperate, at which point it hopes the negotiations will be about the terms of surrender.”

The core assumption of this policy is based on a deeply flawed view of Iran. The administration assumes that sufficient pressure will lead to desperation and then that desperation will lead to surrender. It is much more likely that increasing desperation will make the Iranian government increasingly defiant and more willing to take risks. If the U.S. seeks to increase its leverage, Iran is likely to do the same thing. Trying to strangle a nation into submission naturally provokes struggle and resistance because it is normal to fight back when someone seeks your demise.

It would be wrong to strangle a population of more than 80 million people even if it yielded some change in regime behavior, but to do this when there is no realistic chance of “success” is to inflict collective punishment for its own sake. No U.S. interests are served by crushing Iranians with hardship and poverty, and nothing good can come from a campaign to destroy the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people. The Iranian people are not our enemy, but our government is waging relentless economic war on them anyway. This is outrageous, it is wrong, and the next administration must act quickly to bring it to an end.

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Hook’s Message: Trust Us, We’re Unreliable

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

The new Trump administration talking point is that Iran should “meet diplomacy with diplomacy,” but there has been no diplomacy for them to respond to. The special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, just made it clear why Iran has no reason talk to the U.S.:

Hook is telling Iran that they have no reason to negotiate a new agreement, since no agreement with the U.S. can now be counted on to outlast the administration that makes it. This is obviously not what you say if you want the other government to talk. It is the sort of thing that an ideologue says to score points and to signal that the U.S. won’t be bound by anything that it negotiates. “You knew I was a snake when you took me in” is not what you say when you want the other side to trust you.

Iranian leaders would be fools to engage in talks under the circumstances. Hook is citing Iran hawks’ reflexive hostility to any agreement with Tehran as proof that the Iranian government should have known better than to make the deal in 2015. Now the Iran hawks are feigning interest in negotiations after reneging on that deal, but why would they be any more likely to honor their side of a new bargain? Hook is announcing that the Trump administration is a bunch of untrustworthy snakes that will bite you as soon as you let your guard down. Is it any wonder that Iranian leaders aren’t jumping at the chance to talk?

There cannot be any lasting international agreements if a new administration reverses everything that its predecessor did simply to spite domestic political opponents. France’s former ambassador to the U.S. chimed in earlier today on this:

Hook’s remarks are a reminder that reneging on the JCPOA wasn’t just a stupid and destructive move as a matter of Iran policy, but will have corrosive effects on the ability of U.S. diplomats to secure any significant bilateral and multilateral agreements in the future. When the administration’s special envoy for Iran all but announces that negotiations are pointless and U.S. commitments are worthless, the Iranian government will get the message, and so will many other governments around the world. The message is that the U.S. is unreliable and untrustworthy.

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The Laughable ‘Credibility’ Argument

Kori Schake also leans heavily on the discredited “credibility” argument in this complaint about the attack on Iran that wasn’t:

The problem with the Trump administration’s policy on Iran isn’t that it won’t go to war. It’s that it keeps constructing policies that require the use of military force to achieve objectives, when the president has repeatedly made clear he’s unwilling to take that step. The administration points a gun, but won’t pull the trigger, and that will encourage other adversaries to challenge America in other theaters.

Something doesn’t add up here. Schake says that the problem with the administration’s Iran policy isn’t that it won’t go to war, but then blames Trump and his administration for their unwillingness to “pull the trigger.” The thinking here seems to be that the U.S. should always pull the trigger after it has “pointed a gun” at another state, or else risk encouraging adversaries elsewhere to challenge the U.S. This is not only not how credible threats work, but it is also a recipe for plunging into one unnecessary war after another solely for the sake of saving face. If the U.S. doesn’t launch an unjustified attack on Iran following the loss of a drone, which adversaries does that encourage? What are they going to be encouraged to do? What exactly will happen that wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. carried out the attack? Hawks get very fuzzy about this part, and they prefer to keep things as abstract and general as possible so that they don’t have to explain in any detail why it is so important for the U.S. government to “pull the trigger.” All that matters to the “credibility” fans is that the trigger gets pulled.

It is remarkable how anxious hawks are about the possible negative consequences of not initiating hostilities against another state, but they tend to be pretty blasé when it comes to thinking about the possible costs and risks of attacking another country without any legal justification. Committing acts of war and killing foreign nationals are not as worrisome as possibly providing some other government elsewhere in the world with the idea that it can get away with acting out against the U.S. An attack might precipitate a major war, or at the very least cause the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people (including more than a few Americans), but in this view the real danger is that our “credibility” might be victimized by the decision not attack. If preventive war is committing suicide for fear of death, going to war over “credibility” amounts to jumping off a cliff for fear of embarrassment.

Responding to the downing of a drone with military action is itself a ridiculous overreaction. Choosing not to indulge in a ridiculous overreaction would likely have the effect of reassuring our allies that our government is not run by fools, and it would tell prospective adversaries that our government doesn’t go to war at the drop of a hat. The U.S. doesn’t suffer from being perceived around the world as gun-shy and reluctant to use force. On the contrary, many other countries around the world see us as something of a trigger-happy active shooter moving from region to region with no regard for law or sovereignty. The idea that our reputation and credibility in the eyes of other states are diminished because the president chooses for once not to fly off the handle and start bombing is laughable.

If Trump’s Iran policy requires “the use of military force to achieve objectives,” that is a good sign that the policy is bankrupt and inimical to U.S. interests. Because that policy has always focused on compelling Iranian capitulation, attacking Iran is where that policy has been headed from the start. The problem here isn’t that Trump took aim at Iran and didn’t pull the trigger, but that he was trying to compel them to surrender to unrealistic demands to begin with. If we think of Trump as a thug trying to hold Iran up at gunpoint, Trump’s failing is not that he didn’t shoot the victim but that he was trying to rob them.

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The Bogus ‘Credibility’ Argument Rides Again

Two Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, Feb. 2, 2018, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott

The Wall Street Journal editors ask a typically obtuse question in response to the aborted attack on Iran:

After Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria in 2013, adversaries soon took advantage. Vladimir Putin snatched Crimea from Ukraine and moved into Syria, China pushed further into the South China Sea, and Iran expanded its proxy wars in the Middle East. Will they draw similar license now from Mr. Trump’s stand-down?

Hawks have spun many absurd and unfounded myths about the consequences of the so-called “red line” episode from 2013, but perhaps the silliest of these is the idea that the U.S. encouraged other states to become more aggressive than they would have been otherwise because Obama chose not to bomb the Syrian government. Every tired hawkish cliche and canard has been on display in the tedious debate over this non-event, and we see them again in this editorial. Once again, we hear baseless complaints about supposedly lost “credibility.” There is the usual American-centric arrogance of thinking that the actions of all other states hinge on what the U.S. does or doesn’t do. There is the refusal to acknowledge the agency of other governments that will act according to their perceived interests no matter what the U.S. may or may not do. There is also the illogical and irrational mistake of treating everything that comes after a certain event as an effect of that event. All of our foreign policy debates have grown worse and dumber as a result of the endless whining about Obama’s decision not to violate the Constitution almost six years ago. Now all of the same painfully stupid arguments are back, and they have only gotten worse with repetition.

Russia “snatched” Crimea in response to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. It is safe to say that this had nothing to do with an American decision not to attack the Syrian government six months before. Russia intervened later in Syria to prop up the Syrian government, and it escalated its involvement in Syria partly in response to the arms and assistance that the U.S. and its allies were providing to anti-regime forces. Had the U.S. bombed Syria in 2013, do we seriously believe that Russia would not have increased its support for the Syrian government? Russia would have almost certainly intervened sooner than it did in reaction to a U.S. attack. If the U.S. had bombed Syria in 2013, does anyone think that attacking yet another Russian client would have made Moscow less hostile to a “pro-Western” government in Kiev? Does anyone think that Russia would have been deterred from annexing Crimea because the U.S. bombed the Syrian government? Similarly, does anyone think that bombing Syria would have caused China to pursue its claims in the South China Sea less aggressively? Would Iran have been less assertive in its regional activities if their ally had come under attack? Everything we have seen from them in the last year suggests just the opposite.

I don’t think anyone honestly believes these silly “credibility” arguments. Our government’s willingness to initiate hostilities against a state that poses no real threat to us has nothing to do with its willingness to defend its treaty allies or itself against attack. No one is genuinely concerned that the U.S. won’t back up its commitments elsewhere in the world because of these episodes. What worries the hawks is the possibility that the U.S. is no longer launching as many of the unnecessary and illegal wars as they want. These “credibility” arguments are nonsense that hawks have used to try to blame Obama’s “inaction” for all sorts of bad consequences that had no connection to the aborted airstrikes on Syria. These claims are so simplistic and rely on such poor reasoning that it would embarrass schoolchildren to cite them in an argument, but because they reinforce hawkish assumptions about the use of force and U.S. “credibility” in the world they continue to be used.

Obama should never have made his ill-advised “red line” remarks, and Trump should not have ratcheted up tensions with Iran with sanctions, bluster, and threats. Both Obama and Trump ultimately made the right choice not to violate the Constitution and international law after threatening to do just that, but both presidents were responsible for getting themselves into the absurd situation in the first place. Presidents should avoid making empty threats, and the best way to avoid that trap is to avoid pursuing confrontational and aggressive policies that involve making threats against other states. Obama sort of understood that about Syria, but he could never fully extricate the U.S. once he had declared that Assad “must go.” Trump clearly doesn’t understand this about Iran, and he doesn’t see that the “maximum pressure” campaign is the reason that the U.S. and Iran have come so close to war.

Hawkish disappointment in Trump is revealing. For all of their unbelievable insistence that they don’t want war with Iran, they are now forced to acknowledge that waging war on Iran is the next step for the “maximum pressure” campaign. The editors write:

On Iran he has adopted a policy goal favored by hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham but wants to use only the means of isolationist Sen. Rand Paul to achieve it.

The WSJ editors are essentially saying that if Trump wills the end desired by Iran hawks he must also will the means, and by that they mean he must be willing to attack Iran. Opponents of the nuclear deal have been seeking a war with Iran for years, and they thought they were about to get it. Trump may still give it to them, but in the meantime many Iran hawks have dropped the pretense that they don’t want war. Whenever hawks start talking about “credibility,” that is a tell that starting or joining a war is their goal. If Trump has any sense of political self-preservation, he won’t give them what they want.

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Bolton’s Brazen Iran Lies Never Stop

National Security Advisor John Bolton in April, 2018.  By Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

John Bolton is in Israel this weekend, and he continues to lie brazenly about Iran and its nuclear program:

“Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, its threats to exceed the limits set in the failed Iran nuclear deal in the coming days … are not signs of a nation seeking peace,” Bolton told reporters during a visit to Israel.

Bolton frequently tells these lies in public, but he is almost never called out for them by the journalists in the room and news reports almost never explain that Bolton’s assertions are unfounded and untrue. The National Security Advisor has learned over the years that if he states things vehemently enough he tends to get away with lying about important foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, news outlets usually just quote his statements without offering any context or giving their audience the accurate information they need to recognize the deception Bolton is engaged in. News reports that quote Bolton on Iran should also mention that he was a paid advocate of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a deranged cult of exiles that seeks regime change in Iran, and they should add that Bolton has a history of manipulating and distorting intelligence to suit his needs. There are multiple red flags that need to be raised every time Bolton talks about Iran so that the public won’t be misinformed, and most of the time all of them are omitted. No one has less credibility to talk about Iran than Bolton, but for some reason his statements are treated as if they are something more than dishonest propaganda delivered by a fanatic.

Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran does not want them. Iran cannot build them. The reason that Iran cannot build them is that their government already agreed to significant restrictions on their nuclear program and they also agreed to intrusive inspections to verify that they were keeping to those restrictions. Iran has demonstrated consistently for more than three years that it does not want nuclear weapons, and in return the U.S. broke its promises, ripped away the sanctions relief that had been pledged as our part of the agreement, and began waging a relentless economic war against them to strangle Iran’s economy and impoverish its people.

In response to more than a year of this relentless economic warfare and the failure of the other parties to the agreement to deliver Iran the sanctions relief that they promised to provide, Iran announced that it would exceed the limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. That was not a signal that they intend to start seeking nuclear weapons, but was instead the least provocative move available to them to protest against the illegitimate sanctions imposed on them. It was meant to pressure the other parties to the agreement to step up their efforts to secure Iran some benefits from the deal that they have been honoring. The Trump administration has been deliberately working to drive Iran out of the nuclear deal so that they can have a pretext for conflict. As soon as Iran reduces its compliance even a little in protest against the administration’s outrageous treatment, administration officials suddenly feign concern about a minor, reversible breach of Iran’s obligations when they have violated all of our government’s obligations under the deal. When Bolton tries to use this modest Iranian response to “maximum pressure” to accuse Iran of harboring intentions of developing nuclear weapons, he is misrepresenting everything in order to promote the larger lie about Iran and nuclear weapons.

Even Bolton’s own lies can’t help but point to the truth. If Iran is only now threatening to exceed limits set by the nuclear deal, that is a reminder that Iran has been faithfully complying with the deal in full ever since it was implemented. The deal has not “failed” at all, but has done exactly what it was supposed to do with respect to limiting the nuclear program. Had the U.S. not reneged on the deal as Bolton wanted, there would be no danger of Iran exceeding these limits because there would be no “maximum pressure” campaign to protest against. The Trump administration has been actively encouraging Iran to violate the deal or abandon it entirely. No one should take them seriously when they turn around and complain about the violations they caused. Bolton wants the deal to collapse so that he can exploit and demagogue the nuclear issue. He knows perfectly well that Iran isn’t seeking nuclear weapons, just as he knows very well that the nuclear deal is working as intended, but he chooses to lie about all of this because that gets him closer to his goals of war and regime change.

As far as the nuclear issue is concerned, Iran has committed to keeping its nuclear program peaceful and it has followed through on those commitments. Bolton’s phony concern for nonproliferation is revealed as the fraud it is every time that he rails against the successful nonproliferation agreement that is still working even after the U.S. reneged on it and sought to destroy it. If preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons was the real concern, Bolton and the rest of the Trump administration would not be trying to kill the deal. The fact that they have been obsessed with killing the deal proves that their intentions are destructive and malign. The deal has been an obstacle to the war Bolton wants, and so he has done all he can to remove that obstacle to get that war. If Trump wants to avoid a war, the essential first step is to remove Bolton from his administration.

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Presidential Wars Are Illegal Wars

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Gene Healy makes the same point that the president does not get to make the decision to take the U.S. to war:

And while it’s nice that President Trump periodically steps back from the brink, it’s insane and appalling that we’ve staked so much on the instincts and whims of one eminently fallible human being. That is not the way it was supposed to work: “This system will not hurry us into war,” James Wilson told delegates to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, “it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”

From the Cold War through the Forever War on Terror, we’ve watched the emergence of a radically different regime, in which going to war is easy, frequent, and rarely debated.

Trump is not the first president to violate the Constitution by ordering illegal attacks on other states, but he has done it before and this week’s aborted attack is proof that he was prepared to do it again. The current impasse with Iran shows us how dangerous it is when the president presumes to have the right to initiate hostilities against another state. Things are actually much worse now than they were during the Cold War. A half-century ago, the president would need to exploit an incident to get a blank check from Congress before taking the U.S. into an unnecessary war. Today the president assumes he can bypass Congress entirely and order unjustified attacks without even giving Congressional leaders advance notice.

The executive’s willingness to drag the country into war hasn’t changed much over the years, but the legislative branch has abdicated its role in matters of war so often that its institutional muscles have atrophied and its habit of deferring to the president has become a crippling malady. There are some members of Congress that have been working for many years to change that, but they have to contend with hundreds of colleagues that would prefer to duck their responsibilities. Presidents have become accustomed to thinking that they can ignore Congress because so many members of Congress say and do nothing when the U.S. launches unnecessary wars without authorization. One of the more pernicious legacies of the Obama administration was Obama’s record of launching illegal wars. He normalized the idea that the president can start a war on his own, and for the most part Congress simply rolled over and accepted it. The debate over Yemen and war powers has started to change that, and the administration’s destructive Iran policy is helping to spur more senators to challenge the president’s overreaching, but Congress needs to do more to reassert their proper constitutional role in deciding on matters of war. Their message needs to be that presidential wars are illegal wars, and Congress won’t tolerate them any longer.

It’s also worth thinking about why the U.S. keeps ending up on the brink of new unnecessary wars. In recent years, it has happened because the president and his officials insist on making maximalist demands and imposing “maximum” pressure on other states. When U.S. policy seeks the other side’s unilateral disarmament and capitulation, it is bound to lead to the rejection of U.S. demands and resistance to the pressure campaign. The problem lies with the excessive and absurd nature of our government’s demands, which can only provoke defiance and opposition, and with our government’s complete unwillingness to compromise for the sake of a mutually beneficial agreement. When the U.S. expresses nothing but relentless hostility, requires other states to abandon what they consider to be essential, non-negotiable elements of their national security, threatens them with “obliteration” every now and then, and tries to strangle them into submission, failure and the heightened risk of conflict are more or less inevitable. If the president doesn’t want war, he has to give up on “maximum pressure.” If he refuses to give up “maximum pressure,” he will keep taking the U.S. to the edge of unnecessary wars and one of these days we may fall off the edge into a conflict that could have been easily avoided were it not for the administration’s brain-dead hawkishness.

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The Poisonous Fruit of the Iran Obsession

President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.

Rod Dreher comments on Tucker Carlson’s apparent role in persuading Trump not to launch an attack on Iran:

We have come to the point at which pretty much the only thing standing between America and a new war is a prime time conservative talk show host.

Carlson deserves credit for helping convince Trump not to follow through on the attack that he had intended to launch, but we shouldn’t forget that this is not how our system is supposed to work. It is not up to the president to decide on a whim to start a foreign war, and he doesn’t deserve applause when he calls off an illegal attack that he isn’t allowed to order in the first place. It is fortunate that he happened to hear from an influential opponent of attacking Iran in the days leading up to the aborted attack, but the decision on whether the U.S. should go to war does not belong to the president. We ought to be at least as furious about that as we are relieved that he changed his mind at the last second. Once we concede that the president gets to start a war on his own, we have given up on representative and republican government in this country.

Our constitutional system has decayed to such an extent that there is very little discussion that the attack Trump had ordered was completely unauthorized, illegal, and a violation of his oath of office. You don’t get credit when you plan to do something illegal but don’t carry out the plan. Like the illegal attacks he ordered against the Syrian government, this episode is being talked about in terms of Trump’s competing “instincts” and the factors that led to his decision one way or the other, but that misses what really matters. It can’t be emphasized enough that it is not up to him to decide this.

The planned attack on Thursday night was unjustified, but no less important the president had no authority to initiate hostilities against another state in any case. Under the Constitution, the president does not get to do this. Trump’s usual contempt for Congress was even more obvious on Thursday when he did not inform Congressional leaders that there was going to be an attack:

“No,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday when asked whether she was notified by the White House about the planned strikes.

It would be customary for the White House to inform the House speaker and other congressional leaders of any military operation that had been approved.

That shows enormous disrespect to the public by leaving us and our representatives completely in the dark about what our government is doing.

It also turns out that the Iranian claim that the drone or another U.S. aircraft violated their airspace may have been accurate:

But a senior Trump administration official said there was concern inside the United States government about whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, or even the P-8A manned aircraft flown by a military aircrew, actually did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Mr. Trump called off the strike.

Leave aside for a moment the insanity of going to war over a drone, and consider that the administration was publicly adamant that the drone never came close to Iranian airspace at any time. If there was “concern” inside the government that this wasn’t true, it was irresponsible and dishonest when administration officials said that the Iranian claim was false. The administration was on the verge of going to war over an incident that may very well have been their own fault, and that incident was the result of a crisis they created.

The particulars of the drone incident should not cause us to forget that the crisis would not be happening were it not for the administration’s relentless economic war on Iran. One might think that coming so close to starting an unnecessary war with Iran as a result of the disastrous “maximum pressure” campaign would prompt a reassessment of the assumptions behind that campaign, but of course that isn’t happening. Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this experience. He ultimately made the right decision to call of the attack after taking us to the edge of the abyss, but he remains committed to the dead-end policy of collective punishment through sanctions:

U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday he will impose additional sanctions on Iran in an effort to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, adding that military action was still a possibility.

Trump, who was speaking to reporters at the White House, made his comments after recently calling off military action against Iran to retaliate for the downing of a U.S. military drone.

“We are putting additional sanctions on Iran,” Trump said. “In some cases we are going slowly, but in other cases we are moving rapidly.”

The president said military action “is always on the table” against Iran.

Putting more sanctions on Iran amounts to escalating the economic war that is responsible for the increased tensions between our governments. It is the next-worse thing to starting a shooting war, and that is what Trump wants to do. The president’s remarks from earlier today sum up just how stupid and pointlessly destructive his Iran policy is:

If preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon were the real goal, Trump could declare victory today. Iran already agreed not to do that and made verifiable commitments that make it practically impossible for them to do it. Thanks to Trump’s reckless and irrational decision to renege on the JCPOA, the U.S. has been working overtime to push Iran to abandon the nonproliferation commitments it made. That is why it is so difficult to believe Trump when he says that stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is all that matters to him. Everything he has done related to Iran over the last thirteen months has been to undermine the successful non-proliferation agreement that already achieved what he says he wants, and he has brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war out of a combination of his and his administration’s stupidity, cruelty, and vanity. Iran cannot trust what Trump says when he blatantly lies about what the nuclear deal allows. He says they can be a “wealthy country” if they agree not to have nuclear weapons, but they agreed to significant restrictions on their program and intrusive inspections of their facilities and he has been seeking to impoverish them anyway.

Trump’s knee-jerk, ill-informed opposition to the nuclear deal has been one of the few constants in his foreign policy worldview over the last four years, and his decision to renege on the deal has proven to be one of the most significant and most harmful decisions he has made as president. Without that disastrous decision in May 2018, it is extremely unlikely that U.S.-Iranian tensions would be as high as they are now and there is no way that our governments would be so close to war. The president fully bought into a policy of confrontation and coercion, and it is no surprise that it has made an unnecessary war much more likely. Trump’s hawkish allies understood that is where this policy was headed all along, and that is why they have supported it. If the president doesn’t want to drive off the cliff’s edge that he has been racing towards, he has to make radical changes to his Iran policy and to the personnel serving in his administration. If he can’t or won’t do that, the U.S. and Iran will be unacceptably close to war for the remainder of his term. If Trump presses ahead with the same bankrupt Iran policy, it is just a matter of time before there is another incident.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Bret Stephens, warmonger. Andrew Bacevich dissects Stephens’ recent distortion of history and calls him out for supporting war with Iran.

The U.S. should strive for a stable Iran. Instead, it is suffocating it. Ardeshir Zahedi and Ali Vaez urge the U.S. to change its Iran policy so that it stops suffocating the people.

Iran’s women’s movement, civil society come under “maximum pressure.” Leila Alikarami reports on the harmful effects of U.S. sanctions on Iranian women and and how “maximum pressure” is sabotaging social and political reform activism.

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We Narrowly Dodged the Bullet of War with Iran

The New York Times reports that the Trump administration very nearly launched an attack on Iran tonight before the president changed his mind:

As late as 7 p.m. Thursday, military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.

Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.

The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.

It is good that the president called off the insane plan to attack Iran, but there should never have been anything to call off. It is better that the president reversed himself at the last minute, but why was the reversal necessary? I said earlier that we would remain on the knife’s edge as long as Trump was committed to his bankrupt Iran policy, and tonight we can see just how thin the blade of that knife is. We very narrowly dodged the bullet of starting a war with Iran tonight, and it would have been a war started for the stupidest of reasons.

We happened to get lucky that Trump’s changeable nature worked in favor of stopping an illegal attack on Iran for the moment, but there is no telling if that will hold for more than a few days. The fact that Trump had previously signed off on an unauthorized and unnecessary military operation is a damning indictment of his judgment and proof of his contempt for the Constitution and Congress. For all of his claims that he didn’t want war with Iran, he was initially willing to endorse unjustified military action against Iran without Congressional authorization and without any other legal justification.

It is not up to the president to launch an attack against another state. Trump had no authority to order an attack. This episode is a good example of why the decision on when and where the U.S. goes to war is not entrusted to the arbitrary whims of a single man. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to decide such things, and only they can make that decision. This near-miss gives new urgency to the effort in Congress to repeal the 2001 AUMF and to block any funds for U.S. military action against Iran. The president’s advisers evidently prevailed on him to order an attack, and if they can do it once they can presumably do it again. The reversal tonight is at best temporary, and we would be extremely foolish to think that Trump has the fortitude or desire to withstand the pressure to escalate that the rest of his administration is putting on him.

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The Iranian People Are Not Our Enemy

Ardeshir Zahedi and Ali Vaez have written a very thoughtful and important op-ed pleading for a change in U.S. Iran policy before it is too late:

Bullying and crude threats will achieve little beyond entangling the United States and the region in another senseless war while deepening the two countries’ 40-year estrangement. The United States should strive for an Iran that is stable with a strong middle class and highly educated youths connected to the moderating influence of the outside world [bold mine-DL]. The Iranian people want to restore the friendship between Iran and the United States, two countries that enjoyed 123 years of cordial ties before 1979. But the path to their hearts and minds is not through sanctions and military intervention.

It is not too late for this administration to cease demonizing and threatening Iran, and step aside from its maximalist demands. One of Iran’s most renowned poets, Rumi, offers a better way forward: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

The Trump administration should follow these recommendations, but I fear it is so far down the path of belligerence and confrontation that the president and his officials wouldn’t know how to stop at this point. Most U.S. administrations are loath to give up on failed policies even when it is obvious to everyone else that they cannot succeed, and the Trump administration is more resistant to admitting failure than most. If the president opts for de-escalation and climbing down from the unrealistic and excessive demands that his administration has made, we should encourage him in making that change and support that effort at de-escalation. If he continues to follow the toxic advice of Iran hawks to intensify the pressure campaign, he should be opposed every step of the way.

The U.S. and Iran lurch from misunderstanding to abortive engagement to crisis in no small part because our governments never directly communicate with each other and our nations have comparatively little contact. Opening regular channels of communication wouldn’t eliminate disagreements and disputes, but it would allow for those disputes to be addressed through dialogue rather than through clashes and incidents at sea. Establishing normal relations should be a goal of U.S. policy within the next few years. It is bizarre that the U.S. and Iran have been without normal diplomatic relations for my entire lifetime, especially when the U.S. has more often directly negotiated with and exchanged ambassadors with former enemies that the U.S. fought major wars against. If we are capable of burying the hatchet with Vietnam, China, Japan, Italy, and Germany within 20 years of fighting them or less, and if we could have normal relations with the Soviet Union and its communist allies throughout the Cold War, we can certainly have normal relations with Iran after all this time.

Zahedi and Vaez are making a lot of sense, and they write with a depth of understanding of Iran that our government desperately needs to learn from. They point out that the cost of repeatedly showing contempt for the Iranian people has been to turn them against the U.S.:

The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.

These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.

The Iranian people are not and never have been our enemy, but our Iran policy doesn’t reflect that in practice. When the Iranian government was aligned with the U.S., our government backed the regime despite the harm that it was doing to the people. After the revolution, our government reflexively backed Iran’s enemies in the hopes of getting at their government. The effect was to cause massive suffering and death among the people. Our government regularly claims that our quarrel is not with the people, but it is always the people that bear the brunt of our policies. One of the main themes in U.S.-Iranian relations over the decades has been our government’s inability or unwillingness to treat Iranians with respect, and under the Trump administration that lack of respect has turned into contempt. We see that with the travel ban and the indulgence of the Mujahideen-e Khalq by prominent U.S. officials and politicians, and we see it with the suffocating oppression of sanctions imposed on the entire country. Iranians are not our enemy, but our government has insisted on treating them as enemies all the same.

Zahedi and Vaez correctly warn that the “maximum pressure” campaign is achieving nothing good, but has instead impoverished the Iranian people, wrecked the middle class, and empowered cronies of the regime:

The suffocating sanctions that the United States is slapping unilaterally on Iran have pushed the country into a deep inflationary recession, impoverishing its middle class and enriching state-affiliated actors, especially men with guns and experience in circumventing restrictions.

Our policy should never be to suffocate the civilian population of another country with ruinous sanctions. In addition to being unjust and cruel, it hardens attitudes against the U.S. and provokes stronger resistance. No genuine U.S. interests are served by immiserating tens of millions of people for the actions of their government, and by inflicting collective punishment on an entire nation our government commits a terrible injustice that should shame us all. If the Iranian people are not our enemy, we must halt the economic war our government is waging against them and pursue a course of diplomatic and economic engagement instead.

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