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Rubio’s Awful “Rollback” Plan for Iran

Marco Rubio thinks that negotiations with Iran have “enabled” it to expand its influence in the region:

It is no coincidence that Iran has achieved a series of stunning successes in recent years as the nuclear talks under the Joint Plan of Action have unfolded. For example, in many respects Iraq is now a client state of Iran.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if Rubio knows the meaning of the word coincidence. What he is describing here most certainly is a coincidence. One might question how much “success” Iran is really having when its allies and proxies are all under siege or are caught in protracted conflicts, but the negotiations with Iran have not helped to bring about this “success.” Diplomacy with Iran on one issue should not be faulted because it cannot change all aspects of Iranian behavior in the region. Reaching an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program is hardly enabling or empowering the regime, but rather imposes additional restrictions and scrutiny on their government inside its own country. Rubio’s objections that a deal would lend Iran’s government legitimacy is the same as saying that he doesn’t want there ever to be a deal with the current Iranian leadership. That means that he rejects any diplomatic solution that could possibly be achieved, and the results can only be heightened tensions and possibly armed conflict. As Rubio makes plain in the rest of his argument, that is outcome he wants.

For that matter, Iranian influence on the Iraqi government long predates these negotiations and began growing the moment that the U.S. toppled the old Baathist regime. If Iraq is an Iranian client state “in many respects,” that came about in large part because of the policies of the previous administration. The hawks that are most exercised about growing Iranian influence have reliably supported those policies that seem designed to increase it. When they make recommendations about how to counter Iranian influence, it is important to remember that their previous ideas have aided in making Iran more influential than it was before. Likewise, the same hawks that counsel nothing but pressure, sanctions, and confrontation as the way to “stop” Iran’s nuclear program have already been discredited. The U.S. pursued the course they wanted for most of a decade, which resulted in an Iranian nuclear program far more advanced and sophisticated than what had been there at the start. The policies that hawks support don’t yield the results they expect and promise, but very reliably yield the opposite. Iran hawks have been consistently wrong on what would contain or expand Iranian influence and on what would limit or advance Iran’s nuclear program, and as Rubio makes clear they are still wrong on both.

Rubio insists that the U.S. should “replace détente with rollback.” The policy that he recommends would commit the U.S. to a very costly, prolonged mission to try to “reverse” supposed Iranian gains. It’s not clear how the U.S. would do this in Lebanon or Syria without further destabilizing both countries and dragging the U.S. deeper into Syria’s civil war. Rubio later complains about indulging fantasies, but keeps talking about supporting “moderate military and political leaders in Syria” as if such people existed. Likewise, it isn’t clear how the U.S. would pull Iraq out of Iran’s orbit now when it was unable to do so at the height of the occupation of Iraq. Even if such a thing could be done, it wouldn’t be at anything resembling an acceptable cost. Among other costs, a concerted effort to oppose Iran across the region would make the Iranian government less inclined to adhere to the terms of any nuclear deal, since it would assume that this increased hostility was aimed at their eventual overthrow. That would be very useful politically for hard-liners inside Iran, who could then make the case for pursuing nuclear weapons. That is always the problem with “rollback” policies. While they may seem appealing to some people on the surface, the costs of such a policy are always too high even for most of the advocates of “rollback.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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