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Opinion What the Trump White House understands about Iran

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

President Barack Obama’s fruitless effort to lure Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into changing the behavior of his rogue regime never had a chance because it began from the premise that appeasement works. It never does.

Appeasement didn’t work with the Iran nuclear deal, just as it failed in the “reset” with Russia earlier in the Obama administration, and just as it failed with the 1994 North Korea-U.S. “deal,” which Pyongyang had probably violated with its secret uranium enrichment sites even as it put pen and ink to paper. Now Iran is following through on its promise to again unleash its proxies against America and its allies. Almost a year ago — long before the White House designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist organization” — Iran made its strategy public: “On August 6, 2018, the Iranian news agency Fars published statements by Gen. Naser Sha’bani, a top official of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in which he noted that the regime of the Islamic Revolution had ordered the pro-Iran Ansar Allah (Houthi) militia in Yemen to attack two Saudi tankers, and that it had carried out those orders.”

The Trump administration abandoned the appeasement policies of Obama, who fell into the trap of hoping to be a geopolitical strategist who could flip a long-running script, like Richard Nixon and China. But Mao Zedong was at the end of his life and his country crippled by a failed Cultural Revolution and threatened on its northern border by an immense Soviet army. Obama ignored the fundamental realities of the words and deeds of Iranian religious, political and military leaders. There is no fundamental change afoot in Tehran.

The disaster of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in effect recapitalized the IRGC’s expeditionary forces in Syria and its proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and now has led to attacks on Persian Gulf shipping in an ominous replay of events that led up to the culminating battle of the “tanker war,” won decisively during Ronald Reagan’s administration in April 1988 when U.S. forces in the region quickly destroyed a significant portion of the Iranian navy in Operation Praying Mantis.

We appear to be close to a replay of that collision, but most U.S. media outlets are far behind the news curve and many pundits are generally attempting to pigeonhole their limited coverage of this escalating crisis into their long-running opposition to national security adviser John Bolton, whose clarity and intelligence have long cowed his opponents inside the Beltway. Media accounts that portray this gathering storm as a bureaucratic war between the insiders at the Pentagon and those at the National Security Council are blindly reading from an old script and ignoring an even older one.

Bolton has an able partner in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both are advising President Trump in the same fashion; both believe and have publicly argued that Iran was, is and will remain a rogue regime as long as theocrats bent on the destruction of Israel and the triumph of its Shiite ideology over Sunni Islam remain in power. Trump is no fan of long-term “nation building” projects that are often lazily grouped under the head of “neoconservatism,” but the president is very much a proponent of hitting bad actors hard when they cross lines, as he has done twice with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal regime.

The JCPOA is dead. The Obama dream was always that: a dream. The IRGC and Khamenei have not changed a bit but have only been emboldened and their coffers replenished by the collective face plant that was the Iran nuclear deal. A lot of American commentators and journalists fell hard for that now-dashed hope, and swooned for the pronouncements of the would-be Metternichs of the Obama era. Now realism has returned to the national security establishment. It would be useful if the media caught up and stopped trying to fit this conflict into its long-held “Obama good, Trump bad” narrative. The stakes are too high.

If the Iranians provoke a second Praying Mantis, it will surprise a lot of Americans who trust the news to keep the country prepared for developments abroad. The temptations of impeachment and Trump-bashing have overwhelmed institutional commitments to national security reporting. Editors and producers need to look back at Iran’s actions in the past 40 years. This conflict isn’t about Bolton or Pompeo or any other U.S. official. It’s about the mullahs in Tehran. It has been since 1979.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: As Trump blunders into disaster, Adam Schiff sounds the alarm

The Post’s View: We’re drifting toward war with Iran. Trump needs to take a diplomatic way out.

The Post’s View: Trump wants to impose more sanctions on Iran. It could slide us toward war.

Jennifer Rubin: How is Trump’s Iran policy supposed to work?

Jason Rezaian: Can Washington rethink Iran?