On Monday, the world awoke to a bloodcurdling threat from President Trump to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
This vitriol was prompted by a speech in which Rouhani had said: “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” Trump’s reaction seemed disproportionate and reeked, as I noted, of a desperate attempt to distract attention from his subservience to Russia. Speaking on CNN, I said, “If anybody is issuing ‘demented words of violence and death,’ I would say it’s the president of the United States. It’s quite a pass we’ve come to when the leadership of a country like Iran seems more stable and rational than the president of the United States.”
Cue the right-wing outrage machine. Herman Cain (remember him?) tweeted: “So, @CNN thinks people who chant ‘death to America,’ execute gays, charge rape victims with illegal sexual conduct, fund terrorists, imprison journalists, lead the world in child executions, and censor non-islamic media seem ‘more rational’ than Trump.” The right-wing website Twitchy blared in a headline: “ ‘SICK!’ Max Boot stoops to TWISTED low to slam Donald Trump on Iran, Russia.” NewsBusters found my comments “particularly disturbing” and added, “how an American television station could ever find Iran in a morally superior position is bewildering to say the very least.”
I’m sure all of these Trump supporters were equally outraged when the president described Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who specializes in repression and aggression, as a “fine” person. Or when he called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who imprisons 200,000 people in concentration camps, “a very talented” and “very smart” man who “loves his country very much.” Or when he congratulated President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines on “the unbelievable job” he was doing “on the drug problem” by unleashing death squads that have killed thousands of Filipinos.
They weren’t? How hypocritical!
The rule on the right seems to be: Trump can praise dictators as extravagantly as he likes, and it’s brilliant dealmaking. But it’s “SICK!” for anyone to say anything positive about the few regimes that Trump opportunistically criticizes on human-rights grounds: With North Korea having fallen off the list, it’s now down to Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Let’s be clear: I was not praising Iran as a moral paragon. Iran is ruled by a criminal clique which represses its own populace, exports terrorism, destabilizes its neighbors, imprisons and murders Americans, and threatens Israel. Yet, sad to say, Iran’s odious rulers appear more “stable and rational” than our erratic would-be autocrat, who launches destructive trade wars (with subsidies for the victims), undermines NATO (the most successful alliance in history) and insults our allies.
Iran has been all too successful in spreading its baleful influence across the Middle East. It dominates a “Shiite crescent” that stretches from Tehran to Beirut. To jump-start its economy, Iran agreed to dismantle most of its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions. And after the more bellicose Trump came into office, Iran was shrewd enough to curb its harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf so as not to give him an excuse to attack it or tear up the nuclear deal.
By contrast, Trump’s policy toward Iran is neither stable nor rational. He exited the nuclear deal, which had forced Iran to give up 97 percent of its fissile material, even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that Tehran was “in compliance.” Trump reinstated sanctions, which are hurting the Iranian economy and driving up the price of oil, but Iran is succeeding in luring Chinese and Russian investors to make up for the departure of the Europeans and Americans.
Trump seems to have set his heart on regime change even though it’s not clear whether a successor regime would be any friendlier to the United States. He doesn’t seem to realize that, outside of South Africa, there is little precedent for sanctions toppling a regime: Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela have all withstood decades of U.S. isolation.
Meanwhile, belying Trump’s Alice-in-Wonderland claim that “Iran is acting a lot differently,” Tehran still supports proxies that dominate in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime is violating the “deconfliction zones” that Trump and Putin had agreed on last year while allowing the Iranians to establish military bases to threaten Israel. Far from curbing the Iranian onslaught in Syria, Trump appears eager to pull out U.S. troops and cut a deal with Putin to restrain Iran — something that Moscow has neither the interest nor the ability to do. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that his pro-Russia bias conflicts with his anti-Iran bias, because the two regimes are partners in crime.
In short, the president’s policy toward Iran seems to consist of petulant tweets and wishful thinking. Iran certainly isn’t morally superior to the United States. But it is smarter strategically.