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Opinion Democrats will pick a fight with Trump over Iran at their 2020 peril

President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on May 14. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A friend in the foreign diplomatic corps recently remarked to me about a paradox in U.S. politics: There is bipartisan support for regime change in Venezuela but a deep partisan split regarding U.S. policy toward Iran. That divide, and news about rising tensions between the two countries, was top of mind in my radio interview Friday with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

I asked Buttigieg about Iran generally and more specifically about the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal.

President Trump last year withdrew the United States from the agreement. Would Buttigieg, as president, seek our return?

“Yes,” he said. “The JCPOA was designed to reduce or eliminate the nuclear threat from Iran. We didn’t do it as a favor to Iran. We did it for U.S. security interests. If we’re going to do something again, we can always look at ways that it might be done differently. But I believe it made us safer, and I believe getting out of it has contributed to instability in the region.”

But when asked whether the JCPOA under President Barack Obama and before the U.S. withdrawal had in any way constrained Iranian behavior in the region, the mayor admitted that it hadn’t. “Well, the JCPOA was about their effort to get nuclear capability,” he said. “The bad behavior in the region is another story. And no, I don’t think that it really constrained their regional activities.”

That “bad behavior” includes Iran’s complicity in the Syrian genocide as Tehran continues propping up Bashar al-Assad, who appears set on a new outburst of savagery. Iran has also armed the Hezbollah militia controlling southern Lebanon with tens of thousands of missiles, which are now available to strike Israel, and Iran has contributed massive support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, who last week claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline. Iran was also apparently behind recent attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, when two Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged.

Other Iranian “bad behavior”: exporting chaos to Gaza by aiding Hamas and unjustly imprisoning U.S. citizens.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed Iran’s malign behavior a year ago in a speech at the Heritage Foundation and has delivered the message again and again since then: Iran must change its behavior, but it has refused to do so.

Even the Iran nuclear deal’s most vocal defender, former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, in a moment of candor in 2016, conceded that “Iran’s approach to its nuclear program has changed, but thus far, its broader foreign policy ― and the nature of its regime ― has not.”

Three years later, that’s still the case. But Buttigieg and almost certainly the rest of the nearly two-dozen Democratic presidential candidates indulge the fantasy that the JCPOA was a good idea. It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. And it won’t be in 2020.

That is the ground on which part of the presidential campaign most definitely should be fought. Candidate Trump’s appeal in 2016 included his vow to start a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy after the debacle of an appeasement-oriented Obama administration whose foreign policy record could be reduced to a few familiar terms: “leading from behind,” “Benghazi” and “red line.” Trump promised to fundamentally alter the United States’ approach to Iran and to the world more generally. Voters elected him, and he has done just that. In 2020, Trump can campaign as a keeper of promises.

Despite the Iranian regime’s unrelenting enmity for the United States and its allies, serious-minded Americans such as Buttigieg continue to indulge the myth of “Iranian moderates.” This is a regime that has been ruled by precisely two “supreme leaders” in 40 years, tyrants whose rule is ensured by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a state within a state correctly designated a foreign terrorist organization by the Trump administration last month.

Democrats who ignore these realities and who promise a return to the appeasement policies of the Obama era may be signing up for a replay of the 2016 election, which didn’t turn out very well for Obama’s former secretary of state.

Millions of Americans understand Iran’s threat far better than the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party does. They will reject a return to the policies that saw America’s enemies grow stronger while the U.S. military budget was sapped during the Obama years.

If Tehran wants to begin to de-escalate the tensions, it will reach out to Trump and Pompeo through Ambassador Robert O’Brien, the administration’s representative for the imprisoned Americans in Iran. That’s what the North Koreans did: release wrongly held Americans. A thaw followed.

That would require the mullahs to actually want that thaw. Many Democrats believe they do. History shows they don’t.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: Yes, let’s help Iranians gain freedom — but without killing them in the process

David Ignatius: America and Iran are both oddly eager for war

Josh Rogin: The Trump administration isn’t aiming for war with Iran — but that doesn’t mean we should relax

Eugene Robinson: With Trump calling the shots on Iran, we should be afraid

Hugh Hewitt: What the Trump White House understands about Iran