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Why Will Bombing Iranian Proxies Work This Time?

We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending leaves something to be desired.

Credit: Borna_Mirahmadian

Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, everyone should know that one of the most amazing things about Washington is its ability—almost willingness—to make the same foreign policy mistakes over and over. Take Iran. The U.S. has antagonized Iran consistently for the past three decades, doing the same thing over and over hoping for different results (a standard definition of mental illness). Yet in response to Iranian-backed militias in 2024, what does America do? Bomb again, in Yemen, Iraq, and environs.

For every problem solved a new one emerges. Saddam was the first major Iraqi target of the modern age, having fallen from American grace following the Iran-Iraq war in which the U.S. originally sided with Iraq. Bombing Saddam led to, over a decade or so, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by ISIS in Iraq, followed by Iranian militias fighting ISIS alongside the U.S. in Iraq, followed by Iranian ascendancy in Iraq as America retreated from its failed 2003 invasion.


It can get complicated keeping track of all the players. (Remember the Yazidis, the casus belli for America’s return to Iraq after the 2010 withdrawal?) But if you want to keep it simple, try this: The U.S. remains at war in Iraq as a way of pushing back on Iranian influence, which was enabled by U.S. actions. Got it?

Or even simpler: Unless the U.S. is willing to negotiate directly with the Iranians, acknowledging their role as a regional power, the problems of Iranian ascendancy are not going away. Every day the U.S. thinks it can control Iran by bombing only grants Tehran another day to enhance its nuclear program and grow as a threat to Israel. With this militaristic history of bombing failing as obviously as it has, why has diplomacy never taken hold?

Leaving aside the long, bad history between the two countries leading up to the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the biggest impediment to full and complete negotiations with Iran is that both nations, America and Iran, are ruled by ideological leaders who open the diplomatic door only to find their adversary’s new leaders are trapped by their own ideology into slamming it shut.

Start with the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, which led to a brief period of relative moderation in U.S.–Iran relations. Khatami advocated for a more open dialogue with the West. In spring 2003, Javad Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, proposed talks on the nuclear problem and on Iranian–Israeli relations.

Look at things from an Iranian perspective: In 2001 the United States had overrun Iran’s enemy, the Taliban, in Afghanistan, leaving a powerful and then-victorious American military on Iran’s eastern border. The initial success of the American invasion in Iraq in 2003, and the talk of eventually rerouting that invasion force into Syria and Lebanon as a next step, meant the U.S. sat astride Iran’s western border as well. The attitude out of Washington was bellicose—“Axis of Evil” and all that. That Iran’s overture might have been driven by fear it would suffer Iraq’s fate, mattered little. The door to serious negotiations was wide open.


Due to hubris and perhaps just plain diplomatic clumsiness (the State Department was being dismissed in 2003 as hardly necessary, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calling it sarcastically “the department of nice”) the Bush administration ideologues slammed shut the door on Iran. They foresaw, tragically, wrongly, a quick end of war in Iraq and chance to spank Iran properly once that was out of the way. In 2005, Khatami was swept out of office by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dashing any hopes for a broader rapprochement.

In the 2013 elections another moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected president and Zarif was back in as foreign minister. This time, the United States under an ideologue of its own, Barack Obama, was paying attention. In 2015, the Obama and Rouhani administrations negotiated a sloppy nuclear arms agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) along with the European Union, Russia, and China in exchange for sanctions relief.

Zarif indicated the nuclear deal could lead to further agreements between Tehran and Washington, which may have included some positive movement on the status of Israel. The trouble was written on the wall as Obama failed to get widespread U.S. government buy-in, and worked to hold the agreement together at the end of his own administration.

Then came Donald Trump, who was ready to dismantle Obama’s nascent agreement with Iran. Trump also listened too closely to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and pulled out of the nuclear agreement and slapped harsh sanctions (the “maximum pressure” campaign) on Iran as the creaky door to negotiations hit his backside on the way out. Tehran in turn announced it would no longer adhere to limits on producing and stockpiling plutonium or highly enriched uranium in a march toward becoming a nuclear threshold state. One can only speculate how close Netanyahu came to convincing Trump to join Israel in striking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Joe Biden ran for president in 2020 on a promise to rejoin the nuclear pact, describing Trump’s Iran strategy as a “self-inflicted disaster.” He charged Trump with upping the odds of a military confrontation by “walking away from diplomacy” with Tehran. Biden’s comments came only hours after Iran’s hardline military claimed responsibility for shooting down an American drone, which it claimed violated Iranian airspace. Biden’s statement also followed an announcement from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization that it would breach within the next 10 days the uranium stockpile limits established by Obama's 2015 multinational nuclear deal.

Despite all this prologue, after Biden was elected, Zarif, back in power, said if Washington rejoined the Obama nuclear pact, Iran would return to compliance with it. The next month, Rouhani repeated the promise. But it became clear Biden was not ready to rejoin the deal. In his confirmation hearings, Biden’s nominee as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was a “long way” from reviving the pact and would have to see first what Iran would agree to do in exchange. At a 2022 midterm election rally, Biden announced the nuclear deal was “dead.” The issue remains there today, fully a non-starter even as relations between Washington and Tehran move closer to direct conflict.

There are plenty of Houthis to kill, and nearly immeasurable sites of relatively cheap drone launchers to blow up. The U.S. has had a lot of practice and is good at it to the point it is almost bullying. Iran is certainly willing to fight to the last non-Iranian militiaman. But decades of bombing have failed to change Iran’s behavior. With a sordid history of ideologues on both sides slamming shut the door to negotiations, we must still understand negotiations are the only route to resolving the current problems in the Red Sea. And in the meantime we are still left with the original question: What will be different about the bombing this time?