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Trump’s Hawkish and Bankrupt Iran Policy

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

Dan Drezner marvels at the “galactic stupidity” of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. His review of the original debate over the nuclear deal made an interesting point that merits a few comments:

For the Iran hawks, that trade-off was unacceptable. Their overarching problem with it was something they could not really articulate in the public debate [bold mine-DL]. As I wrote at the time, the hawks cared less about the nuclear program than they did about the regional balance of power. For hawks, any sanctions relief for Iran meant more resources for the regime to use to disrupt the Middle East: “From a hawkish perspective, you could argue that there are worse things than Iran trying to develop a nuclear deterrent under heavy sanctions. There’s an Iran flush with cash, abstaining from a nuclear weapon but aggressively trying to advance its aims in the Middle East.”

It is fair to disagree with this preference ordering. But if you prioritized Middle East geopolitics over nuclear nonproliferation, there was a logic to it.

Drezner is correct that Iran hawks opposed the deal because they didn’t want Iran to benefit from the sanctions relief that would be forthcoming, and they didn’t want the international pressure on Iran that the sanctions regime represented to go away. If there was a “logic” to this position, why couldn’t they articulate it in public debate? For that matter, why do Iran hawks still embarrass themselves by keeping up the pretense that they want a “better deal” when any deal with Iran would require the very sanctions relief they don’t want to give? The reason is that Iran hawks spent the previous 15 years before the JCPOA hyperventilating about a potential Iranian nuclear weapon, often absurdly describing it as an “existential threat.” For most of this century, many Iran hawks wouldn’t shut up about the need for preventive military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The nuclear issue was their pretext for conflict, and they hated it when the nuclear deal took that pretext away. Having cynically exaggerated the danger of Iranian proliferation in an attempt to get a war with Iran, they couldn’t very well turn around and say that restricting Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy was the wrong priority. So instead we get the endless carping about the “flaws” in the deal that aren’t really flaws and the shameless goalpost-moving that requires a nonproliferation agreement to solve all regional problems at the same time.

There is no question that Trump’s Iran policy is a “train wreck,” but I’m not sure that it’s true that it is quite as contradictory as Drezner suggests. The policy is one of regime change in all but name, and Trump has signed off on everything that has made it so. He has no problem waging economic war on Iran, and he has given the hawks virtually everything they want. Trump’s Iran policy is “the hawkish policy” in action, and if it is a disaster that is because the “hawkish policy” was guaranteed to be one. Trump has emphasized that he doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons, but judging from his remarks when he announced sanctions on Khamenei it’s not the case that he isn’t on board with the rest of Pompeo’s laundry list of demands. The president is fixated on nuclear weapons because his National Security Advisor has beenrunning around for monthspromoting the lie that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and he and other advisers have managed to convince (dupe) Trump of another lie that the JCPOA “permits” Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

This is a fairly typical hawkish line of attack against the JCPOA. After all, Iran hawks have been trying to make one of the toughest nonproliferation agreements ever negotiated look like the “worst” deal ever made, and how better to do that than fabricate something completely false about what the deal allows? Trump has embraced these lies has repeated them several times. Iran can’t negotiate with an administration that claims that the nuclear deal “permits” them to have nuclear weapons. They know that it doesn’t, and so they have to assume that there is no agreement they would be willing to make that would be acceptable to the administration. Sure enough, the administration’s latest talking point that Iran must agree to give up all enrichment confirms that the U.S. is insisting on a concession that Iran is never going to make. Trump doesn’t want to talk to Iran as his predecessor did. He wants Iran to capitulate. That has always been the goal of “maximum pressure.” Trump’s Iran policy is definitely a hawkish policy, and that is why it is producing such awful results for the U.S. and Iran.

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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