President Trump should be commended for recognizing the bankruptcy of President Obama’s Iran policy and, accordingly, for scrapping it. Obama’s policy did not even purport to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. What it did was finance Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East and solidify the mullahs’ hold on the Iranian people.
Obama hoped that lifting sanctions and forking over gold to the mullahs would induce Iran to become a responsible actor on the world stage. The hope was idiotic. It certainly wasn’t realized.
Trump’s policies make it more difficult for Iran to finance aggression and may result in an increase of domestic discontent with the mullahs. At the same time, it increases the risk of war with Iran. And it’s far from clear that, short of war, Trump’s policies will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Marc Thiessen, writing in the Washington Post, argues that Trump’s Iran policy “is working.” In support of this proposition, he points out that, as a result of Trump’s sanctions, the Iranian economy is suffering.
But the goal of Trump’s policies can’t be merely to inflict suffering on the people of Iran. The infliction of suffering has to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
There are three possible ends that might be served by wrecking Iran’s economy. First, it might force Iran back to the negotiating table, where Trump can negotiate a deal that will prevent Iran from obtaining nukes and from making trouble in the Middle East.
This, apparently, is Trump’s goal. Unfortunately, it seems unrealistic. Like North Korea, Iran values its nuclear program above the economic well-being of its people. Thus, even if the mullahs return to the negotiating table, they almost certainly will not agree to a deal that prevents them from fulfilling their nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, Trump’s “carrot” to Iran — the promise of economic “greatness” — is simply a more materialistic version of Obama’s promise that Iran can become a respected power. In that sense, Trump’s policy embraces roughly the same fallacy as his predecessor’s.
The second end that might be served by wrecking Iran’s economy is regime change. Yesterday, Trump disavowed this goal, saying that he hopes the regime remains in power. I assume this was an insincere attempt to make the mullahs more likely to negotiate with the U.S. I certainly hope it was.
Is it realistic to think that economic hardship will lead to the overthrow of the Iranian regime? I don’t know. I do know that the regime has survived very rocky economic times more than once in the past 40 years. I think it’s reasonable to hope for regime change but overly optimistic to expect it.
The third end that might be served by wrecking Iran’s economy is a reduction in the regime’s ability to be an aggressor in the region. I think tough sanctions can serve this goal, but probably only at the margin. The regime places too high a premium on fomenting its version of Islamic revolution to abandon this project even in the face of a badly wounded economy.
If Iran won’t negotiate away its nuclear aspirations and if regime change doesn’t occur, how does Trump fulfill his pledge that Iran won’t obtain nuclear weapons? The only answer I can perceive is through an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Is Trump prepared to authorize such an attack? Not before the presidential election, I’m pretty sure.
What about afterwards, either as a lame duck or in a second term? Perhaps he will attack then, assuming he can’t get Iran to negotiate away its nukes.
I’m not convinced, however, that even after the election, Trump would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Doing so would run counter to his pledge not to lead the U.S. into foreign wars. Nor, quite apart from his pledge, do I see much evidence that Trump has the stomach for real war. His small-scale attacks in Syria carried essentially no such risk.
But war might well be the only way to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and Trump’s tough policies against the regime might well impel Iran to push to become such a power sooner rather than later.