So what’s next with Iran? Even if you think President Trump has made a big mistake in withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, as I do, that’s not the end of the story. Where does this bumpy road lead?
What’s distressing about the Iran question is that nobody in this administration seems to have a good answer. Trump’s move was a chest-thumping political decision, not a clearly articulated strategy.
As unwise as Trump’s action was, it was probably inevitable, given his overblown rhetoric about “the worst deal ever made.” This lie was repeated so often that it became part of the political landscape. That’s one of the problems with this president. Once he makes pledges, he seems determined to follow through, regardless of the damage.
The path ahead begins with the need for a clear policy toward the future of Iran — and not the vague notion of regime change that’s bandied about. Whatever Trump may fantasize, intelligence professionals say this is not a pre-revolutionary moment in Iran. The economy is weak but not crumbling; the population is restless but not marching in the streets; the regime has fissures, but the military and security services appear solid.
An inflection point for Iran may lie ahead, after the death of 78-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but that could be years away. And his passing, when it comes, could raise as many dangers for the United States and its allies as opportunities. Think of an Iranian Saddam Hussein.
Good policy toward Iran should begin with a realistic assessment of the country. I’ve visited Tehran twice, and each time was struck by two things: Iran is a modern and sophisticated society, rich with promise, and its people dislike the reactionary clerics who run the country’s political system. It’s a nation yearning to be normal, and for its revolutionary nightmare to end.
That was one strategic rationale for President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal: It offered the prospect of gradual normalization and growth, under the relatively moderate leadership of President Hassan Rouhani. One of the deal’s weaknesses, alas, was that Rouhani could never curb the regional subversion campaign run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A sane Iran policy would bet on the people and not the regime; it would avoid a risky war that would make Iraq look like a cakewalk. It would promote the rise of a strong and stable democratic Iran as an American national interest. And it would seek an eventual accommodation between a post- revolutionary Iran and a modernizing Saudi Arabia.
A second essential requirement is to avoid shooting Europe when we’re supposedly aiming at Iran. The most dangerous consequence of Trump’s policy is that it may force a confrontation with Europe by making its companies choose between doing business with Iran and the United States. Some Trump supporters may think this sounds smart, but it isn’t. It creates ill will, to no good purpose. And it may be a loser in international courts.
A third key task is to plan for economic instability in Iran and the Persian Gulf region. Iran is hustling to export oil while it can; traders in the bazaar are rushing to get money out of the country; the Iranian currency will weaken; unemployment and dislocation will grow. Trump may think he can benefit from economic chaos, and perhaps over time he will. But right now, the last thing the Middle East needs is another failed state — especially when it might widen the sectarian wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, like a zipper being ripped open.
Trump has almost guaranteed that normalcy won’t come anytime soon for Iran. By withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, he has put that country on a slow boil. Trump may hope to bend Iranian behavior without war. But there’s no sign that he has a plan for how to accomplish that, nor a strategy for ending the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Trump’s tumultuous first year as president unfortunately convinced him that his trademark disruptive approach is a success. He thinks his bullying of North Korea has worked, as has his trade-war rhetoric with China and his hectoring of Germany and other key European allies. So, of course, he overturned the Iran nuclear agreement, too.
The strangest aspect of Trump’s gamble on Iran is that it’s so reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. We’re doing it again — transforming a manageable problem into a freewheeling, uncontrolled one. As Gen. David H. Petraeus said on the way to Baghdad in 2003, “Tell me how this ends.”
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