National Security

The Iranian Threat

A response to Peter Beinart, who claims Iran is not a 'uniquely malevolent actor' in the Middle East

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) with military leaders / Getty

In April 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan at the time, Stephen Beecroft, offered telling insight into how America's allies in the Middle East view Iran. "The metaphor most commonly deployed by Jordanian officials when discussing Iran is of an octopus whose tentacles reach out insidiously to manipulate, foment, and undermine the best laid plans of the West and regional moderates," he wrote in a leaked diplomatic cable. "Iran's tentacles include its allies Qatar and Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, an Iraqi government sometimes seen as supplicant to Tehran, and Shi'a communities throughout the region." Indeed, Tehran has at least a hand in most of the Middle East's hotspots and is often the puppet master, directing its proxies to cause mayhem and destruction—all in service of the regime's imperial quest for regional preeminence.

And yet, a common talking point in the West, especially among the media and the political left, is that Iran is no worse than any other Middle Eastern power, including America's allies, and may even be more benign, if only the United States was not so hostile to it. In fact, these voices argue, the United States should seek a rapprochement with the regime, preventing tensions between the two from deteriorating to the point of war.

Peter Beinart, the left-wing writer and commentator, makes all of these arguments and more in his latest article for the Atlantic. Beinart argues that the Trump administration is marching to war with Iran, and that the United States must show restraint to avoid a catastrophic conflict like the Iraq War. He calls on Democrats specifically to diffuse the explosive situation by ceasing all "confrontational language" and by calling for a rapprochement with Iran. The fundamental point of Beinart's argument, however, is that Iran is not especially malicious. "Democrats have not frontally challenged the core assumption underlying [President] Trump's belligerence: that Iran is a uniquely malevolent actor in the Middle East," Beinart writes. "Unless Democrats challenge the notion that Iran is uniquely malevolent, they won't be able to call for a normalization of relations with the United States. And unless Democrats call for a normalization of relations, a hot war will remain an ever-present danger."

Beinart's argument is simply absurd, full of omissions and distortions that obfuscate simple truths: the regime in Iran is evil and poses, by far, the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East.

"Ever since the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Americans have held an understandably negative view of the Iranian regime, a public perception that makes it easy for Trump, [National Security Adviser John] Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to describe it as the root of virtually all of the Middle East's ills," Beinart writes. "But, in truth, Iran today is no more aggressive and malign than its key regional competitor, and America's ally, Saudi Arabia." Unfortunately for Beinart, and for all innocent civilians who inhabit the Middle East, Iran is behind much of the region's chaos. The Islamic Republic's "tentacles" that Beecroft described have wrapped around virtually every conflict in the region. Indeed, the regime exerts heavy influence on four Arab countries—Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon—supports Palestinian terrorist groups, seeks Israel's destruction, incites the Shi'ite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to subvert their governments, and is trying to expand its sway in Afghanistan and beyond.

Still, Beinart claims that Iran is a "normal regional power jockeying with equally sharp-elbowed foes," meaning Saudi Arabia. This view illustrates an astonishing blindness to reality in the Middle East. To understand why, it is necessary to show how Iran presents a serious threat to the United States. First, remember that Iran already considers itself at war with America. As I explained last month:

The mullahs struck first in 1979, supporting Iranian students who took American diplomats hostage for more than a year. Then came October 1983, when the Iranian government directed and provided the training for a truck bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, resulting in the deaths of 241 Americans, including 220 Marines. The list of terrorist attacks goes on, as do the Iranian leadership's chants of "death to America," the "great Satan."

Iran is also responsible for the deaths of at least 608 American service members in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

Remember that the current hostility between Tehran and Washington only exists because of the former. Before Islamist radicals formed the current regime, the United States was allied with Iran. But then came the Iranian revolution, and with it a new Iranian government that, to its core, was, and remains, anti-American.

Fast-forward to today. The United States has four main interests in the Middle East: combatting Islamist terrorism, preventing nuclear proliferation, ensuring the security of key allies, and ensuring freedom of navigation and the free flow of oil from the region. Iran completely undermines each of these interests, far more than any Sunni terrorist group. Indeed, Iran fosters, rather than counters, Sunni extremism in the Middle East, enraging Muslims across the region and pushing them toward terrorist groups through violent, sectarian practices. Moreover, Iran has provided extensive support to al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations, including the Taliban, for years.

Regarding nuclear proliferation, Iran is still on its way to getting nuclear weapons and has repeatedly lied about the nature and scope of its nuclear program. Other Middle Eastern states have suggested—or made clear in the case of Saudi Arabia—that they would obtain nuclear weapons if Iran does so. As I argued recently, a nuclear-armed Iran would be far more dangerous than a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Iran's belligerent foreign policy also targets American allies—of course Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and others. These allies give the U.S. critical intelligence, boost the American economy, and provide what stability still exists in the world's most chaotic region. Iran, however, is the key reason why the Middle East is so chaotic. It provides rockets and missiles to local proxies across the region to target Israel, Saudi Arabia, and American forces. Indeed, the regime arms and finances militias outside of several regional governments to the point that the militias become more powerful than the governments, except they are subservient to Tehran. And then, over time, these proxies progressively enter state institutions and become entrenched in the governments. So Iran exerts heavy influence over several countries without needing an overbearing presence of Iranians on the ground.

Iran is of course a major player in the oil and gas markets, located by one of the most important global energy highways, the Strait of Hormuz, and supporting a proxy force located near another, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. If Iran tried to gain control of and block either waterway, it could disrupt the oil market and interfere with freedom of navigation in international waters, one of the key tenets of American foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is certainly problematic, but still a crucial ally. Like it or not, Riyadh is an important partner in counterterrorism, and a huge purchaser of American arms sales. The Saudis also are a necessary staple of the global oil market, which affects what Americans pay at the pump regardless of how much oil the U.S. exports. Most importantly, the Saudis support an American-led regional order in the Middle East and American leadership globally, while Iran fundamentally opposes both.

In his piece, Beinart leaves out key information about the conflict in Syria that minimizes the regime's malevolence. He argues that Iran intervened militarily to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of their long-standing alliance and out of fear of what might replace Assad if he fell from power. Those points are accurate, but Beinart fails to mention that Iran wanted to maintain its direct link to Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, and most importantly, to cement its so-called land bridge from its Afghan border to the Mediterranean Sea, a continuous corridor of political and military control from which to exert influence across the Middle East and weaken America's role in the region. This project is part of the Islamic Republic's drive for regional preeminence, a strategic objective that would truly give Iran the capabilities, not just the intent, to destroy American interests in the Middle East.

Beinart also portrays the Syrian conflict as a nefarious Saudi effort to overthrow the Assad regime. He fails to mention that the violence started in 2011, when the Syrian people peacefully protested, asking for Assad to institute modest reforms. Assad responded by slaughtering his own people. And then Iran intervened to help Assad murder about 500,000 Syrians and displace millions more. Beinart does moral gymnastics to try to draw some equivalence between Iran's activities in Syria and any other country that became involved.

Beinart is right that war with Iran would be disastrous, even though the United States would surely win. But clearly neither side wants war; the latest scare tactics have been a transparent effort to create a bogeyman of conflict in hopes of saving the nuclear deal and repaving the path toward rapprochement. But rapprochement, which Beinart so desperately seeks, will not work. The idea is based on several misguided assumptions, above all that there are moderates within the regime with whom Washington can engage to moderate the Islamic Republic. Another misguided assumption is that pressuring the regime will alienate the Iranian people. In reality, the Iranians have shown that they detest their regime, and, if anything, trying to make nice with the regime would alienate them.

Still, Beinart's thesis is the view of the progressive movement and most of the political left, which sees the Obama administration's policy of appeasement as the best way to approach Iran in order to avoid conflict. Of course appeasing the mullahs will only embolden them, but the best way to advocate this policy is to minimize the Iranian threat and the regime's malevolence. Fortunately, the Trump administration sees through the nonsense.