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Trump’s Foolish Iran Threats Might Yield the War He Says He Doesn’t Want

Time for the administration to climb out of Mohammed bin Salman’s pocket

President Donald Trump’s bluster continues to leave the world more confused than usual. After Iranian boats sailed near a U.S. navy flotilla, he threatened Iran via tweet, authorizing American forces to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass” U.S. vessels. It was an echo of his tweet two years ago, insisting that Tehran “never, ever threaten the United States again.”

He never acted on that threat. This time, Gen John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added a warning: “we will come and we will come large.” However, the Pentagon almost immediately dismissed the mutual bravado, insisting that policy had not changed. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist explained the president was merely emphasizing that “all of our ships retain the right of self-defense.”

Unsurprisingly, Iranian officials responded in kind. One promised to “destroy any American terrorist force in the Persian Gulf that threatens security of Iran’s military or non-military ships.” Nor is the Persian Gulf the only flashpoint.

U.S. forces are unwelcome and under fire in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. American personnel remain in Syria, where they illegally occupy Syrian oil installations and are tasked with blocking transit of Iranian forces aiding the Syrian government. Confrontations with Russian regulars and mercenaries allied with Syria and Iran already have occurred. Even an inadvertent clash could escalate dangerously.

For decades Washington’s policy toward Iran has been a disaster. In 1953 the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh. With American support Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled brutally until he was overthrown by a broad-based revolution in February 1979.

Carter administration officials attempted to save the regime. The New York Times recently reported on how special envoy Gen. Robert E. Huyser admitted “that he had urged Iran’s top military leaders to kill as many demonstrators as necessary to keep the shah in power.” He complained that the top Iranian general was “gutless” and refused his advice.

A ruthless Islamist regime emerged from the chaos, leading to the 15-month captivity of America’s embassy staff. The Reagan administration backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his bloody aggressive war against Iran, even providing components for chemical weapons and protecting tankers carrying oil whose sale funded Baghdad’s forces. In 1988 the U.S. navy shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people.

For a time Washington worried more about the specter of Iraqi than Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf, leading to roughly two decades of war and occupation of Iraq. Ironically, America’s ouster of Hussein allowed Iran to greatly increase its influence in its Shia-majority neighbor, which was reinforced by Tehran’s military aid against the Islamic State after the latter overran much of Iraq.

Concern over an Iranian nuclear program, which U.S. intelligence believes was halted in 2003, led to increasing economic sanctions and constant military threats. Although Tehran posed no threat to America, which could destroy the former many times over, Washington acted for its clients Israel and Saudi Arabia. President Barack Obama finally promoted America’s interests by joining several other nations in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which restricted Iranian nuclear activities in return for loosening sanctions and returning frozen Iranian monies. The pact imposed the most intensive inspections and monitoring regime of any arms control agreement.

However, Trump fixated on Iran. Despite the opposition of his top foreign policy and security appointees, in mid-2018 he pulled Washington out of the nuclear agreement. He inaugurated economic war, reimposing old and imposing new sanctions to wreck Iran’s economy.

No doubt, Tehran is hurting as a result. Nevertheless, the regime reinvigorated its nuclear program, maintained its active presence in Syria and Iraq, continued to aid Yemenis against Saudi aggression, and pursued high-tech weapons, launching its first military satellite into space last week. Moreover, the hardliners, most notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leadership, gained at the expense of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who looked foolish and weak for having trusted Washington.

Trump said he wanted to negotiate a new, better agreement. He predicted that “at a certain point they’re going to call me and say ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and we’ll make a deal.” Although the president offered to talk without preconditions, Secretary Mike Pompeo gave the lie to that claim. The latter delivered a speech demanding that Iran abandon its primary military deterrent, missiles, as well as independent foreign policy, including intervening throughout the region, as America did routinely. Almost everything demanded by Pompeo was to benefit Washington’s allies, not America.

The administration’s economic onslaught would traditionally be considered an act of war. Notably, Washington won support from no one else, certainly not the other JCPOA signatories, including European governments. Nevertheless, Washington continued to abuse its financial dominance to punish anyone anywhere seeking to deal with Iranians.

At the same time, the U.S. continued to threaten Tehran militarily. Washington invaded Iraq with Iran an indirect target and surrounded the latter with military bases and forces in the air and afloat. Washington armed Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Israel, all major antagonists of Iran, and supported the first two in their disastrous attack on Yemen. Both the Obama and Trump administrations illegally occupied Syria with the stated objective of expelling Iranian forces; Trump currently maintains military forces in Iraq against domestic opposition in an explicit attempt to contain Iran. Most dramatically, in January Washington assassinated Qasem Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s Quds Force.

The U.S. would win any full-scale conflict, but Tehran has demonstrated its ability to wage asymmetric warfare, including rocket attacks on American bases, proxy assaults on personnel stationed in Iraq and Syria, drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, and missile and small ship threats against U.S. vessels. The Islamic Republic also could increase aid to the Taliban, which Tehran originally opposed before Washington laid economic siege to Iran.

It is impossible to know how the latter would respond to the sinking of a vessel. However, even uber-hawk John Bolton admitted via tweet that “deterrence has not been restored, & coronavirus is not slowing down the ayatollahs.” Tehran likely would respond on its own time in unconventional ways. Washington already has done incalculable harm blowing up Iraq and helping destroy Libya and Yemen. Another conflict, this one against a country with more than twice the population and much greater cohesion than Iraq, would be chaotic and catastrophic.

What can account for the administration’s bizarre fixation on Iran? The regime does not threaten the U.S., which has a globe-spanning military that could destroy everything above ground in Iran. Iran is not really a “terrorist” state, since that criticism refers to support for hostile quasi-governments, Hamas and Hezbollah, which are in conflict with Israel, not America. In contrast, Saudi Arabia still underwrites Wahhabism, which demonizes Christians and Jews, backed jihadist insurgents in Syria, long allowed funding of terrorist groups, and provided 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists.

Tehran does not share America’s values or commitment to human rights. But neither does Saudi Arabia, among many others. The Islamist Republic often challenges American interests. So do many nominal friends, such as the Saudis, Emiratis, and Turks, who have variously funded terrorists, backed the Taliban, promoted Islamic extremism, oppressed their own populations, attacked their neighbors, underwritten tyranny, and subsidized civil wars.

The real reason for U.S. involvement is to fight other nations’ wars. A decade ago Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” Riyadh is used to hiring others to do dirty work. Defense is no exception.

During the campaign the president was not such a pushover. For instance, he complained that the Saudis were “people that push gays off buildings” and “kill women and treat women horribly.” He also opined: “Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.”

Today, however, he is doing the Saudi royal family’s bidding. The president apparently believes that a few Saudi weapon purchases are a fair price for risking the lives of American military personnel. In politics and religion the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state; in fact, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has increased domestic repression. The al-Saud regime also has proved to be most destabilizing force in the region, inflaming the Sunni-Shia divide, which could become the conflagration that consumes the Mideast.

Anyway, a half dozen Sunni Gulf monarchies along with Egypt and Turkey should be able to defend themselves. If not, they need to reform so their people are willing to support them. America’s armed services should not be hired out to protect the highest bidder.

Of course, the objective of most Iran hawks, whether they admit it or not, is regime change in Tehran. However, the Islamist establishment is both resilient and ruthless, willing to do whatever is necessary to retain power. Moreover, as has often been said, one should be careful what one wishes for. There is no reason to believe that amid the rubble of state collapse that the Iranian Thomas Jefferson would step forth and lead a liberal revolution like that staged by America’s founders. Those with the most commitment and guns, such as the IRGC, would be best positioned to seize power. Indeed, this force already has gained added authority by leading the campaign to respond to COVID-19.

President Trump should climb out of Mohammed bin Salman’s pocket and make policy based on America’s interests. That means returning to the JCPOA, ending the economic war against Iran, dropping military threats against Tehran, and pulling back American personnel from the Mideast. As part of that process, the U.S. should initiate truly unconditional talks with Iran to address other contentious issues. Détente between Tehran and Washington, not another war, is the best strategy to achieve long-term security and stability in the region.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He also is a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars.