This week, Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which they castigate President Trump's policy toward Iran. "Trump is barreling toward war with Iran," the headline reads. "Congress must act to stop him." In the article, the senators describe the Trump administration's approach to the Islamic Republic as reckless and belligerent, expressing the views of many of the president's critics. Their arguments are misguided, however, and miss an important truth: Trump actually needs to be tougher on Iran, not softer.
Udall and Durbin say the Trump administration is pushing the United States toward conflict based on "faulty and misleading logic," comparing its conduct today to the George W. Bush administration's actions leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "The Trump administration's Iran policy, built on the ashes of the failed Iraq strategy, is pushing us to take military action aimed at regime change in Tehran," they write. "We must not repeat the mistakes of the past, and Congress must act urgently to ensure that."
The senators claim that the current administration has "presented the false narratives" that Iran is violating the nuclear deal and partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State in Syria. Yet both narratives are true. Iran has violated the nuclear agreement in several ways. The regime has repeatedly exceeded the limits of heavy water, a form of water used in nuclear reactors that can help produce plutonium, permitted under the deal. Iran has also operated more advanced nuclear centrifuges than are permitted by the accord, refused to grant international inspections of nuclear research and military facilities, and, according to German intelligence agencies, continued illicit attempts to buy nuclear and missile technology. Furthermore, as I wrote in January, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, explained in an interview how the regime
circumvented a section of the deal that explicitly requires Tehran to remove the reactor core at its Arak nuclear facility in central Iran, and then to fill its tubes with cement so the facility cannot be used to pursue a plutonium path to a bomb. Iran's nuclear chief explained that Tehran secretly acquired and stored replacement tubes, noting that only the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knew about the decision … [Salehi] added that images showing the reactor core filled with cement were "photoshopped."
Most importantly, the Israelis last year captured some 100,000 secret files from Iran concerning its nuclear program, including documents on building bombs. Their very existence indicates that Iran seeks to obtain nuclear weapons in the future, thus violating one of the deal's first sentences: "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons."
Regarding Syria, there is no doubt that Iran's role in the Syrian conflict has helped ISIS and other Sunni terrorist groups recruit new fighters. Iran devoted its own soldiers, proxy militias, and billions of dollars to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose brutality drove many enraged Sunnis to join ISIS. Moreover, Assad, who would have been deposed if not for Iran's intervention, actually strengthened ISIS and other terrorist groups to discredit opposition forces and ensure that Western militaries did not intervene against him.
Udall and Durbin erroneously accuse the administration of misleading the public in another way. "The Trump administration has also been attempting to create a strong link between al Qaeda and Iran—based on vague suggestions, but no hard evidence." This statement is absurd. There is a mountain of evidence showing that, for decades, Iran has supported al Qaeda, providing the organization a place to operate and even help with carrying out attacks.
In reality, the senators are the ones presenting false narratives about Iran. But regardless, framing an argument about Trump's approach to Iran as a rebuke of the Iraq War is a lazy effort that ignores key details.
Udall and Durbin describe any attempt to confront Iran as a step toward war, implying that appeasement and the nuclear deal comprise a better path and that the administration is the belligerent party. "While Iran is no innocent actor, the Trump administration's policies and pronouncements have only increased tensions in the region," they write. "Today, the United States stands alone in breach of the [nuclear] agreement, bullying friends and foes alike with threats and sanctions."
"No innocent actor." Do the senators not observe what Iran does? From slaughtering civilians in Syria and elsewhere, to supporting terrorist groups, to threatening key allies, to abusing its own citizens, Iran is wreaking havoc across the Middle East. The United States must confront such a regime, which seeks preeminence in the region—thereby threatening key American interests such as the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and the security of allies. The regime is an Islamist theocracy and fundamentally anti-American. Confrontation is inevitable. But confrontation does not mean war. It means using the various tools of American power—military, economic, diplomatic, informational—to counter Iran's ambitions.
Udall and Durbin pick out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton as the two chief warmongers driving the administration's march toward war. But look at what the administration is actually doing; it does not match up with the senators' dark picture. Despite the lawmakers' claims, the administration is not seeking to change the regime in Iran. Top officials, including Pompeo and Bolton, have said as much several times. Trump wants to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table. Whether he will seek a narrow nuclear deal or a broader agreement that includes Iran's non-nuclear behavior is unclear, but the United States is clearly not calling for conflict. Furthermore, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal not to provoke Tehran into conflict, but to avoid one. The agreement paves a path for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons in about a decade, which could lead to war. The administration deemed the deal not in America's security interests. One can disagree with the decision, but to say Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton are thirsty for Iranian blood is another charge entirely.
Most importantly, the administration is not exerting nearly as much pressure on the regime as it can or should. With the partial American withdrawal from Syria, Trump has signaled that he is not willing to do what is necessary to counter Iran's imperial expansion in the region. Moreover, the administration has not done enough to support the Iranian people protesting against their regime, at least publicly. At this point, the United States is only pressuring Iran through sanctions, which are necessary and effective but entirely insufficient to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal or change its belligerent behavior.
In other words, despite its strong rhetoric, the Trump administration needs to be harsher toward the Islamic Republic. Udall and Durbin may see storm clouds on the horizon, but the notion that Trump is "barreling toward war" with Iran is wrong, a scare tactic meant to protect the nuclear deal and take pressure off the regime's leaders. After all, they were on the path to moderating, right?