Decision Time on Iran

Column: President Trump faces a Middle East reckoning in 2018

President Hassan Rouhani in front of a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
President Hassan Rouhani in front of a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / Getty Images
December 15, 2017

Very soon, President Trump will have to decide whether America should remain a bystander to Iranian expansionism or take steps to confront this menace to international security and sponsor of global terrorism.

In October, when the president failed to certify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear deal, he began a process that is almost certain to force him to make controversial decisions in the coming months.

The Congress has had 60 days to propose measures that would punish Iran for its misbehavior and strengthen the JCPOA. It has not done so. The issue will therefore wind up once again in the Oval Office in January, when President Trump will choose between maintaining an agreement with a noncompliant signatory and re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

The pressure will be great from Democrats, Europeans, realists, and the remnants of the Obama echo chamber to persist in the fiction that a bad deal is better than no deal at all. Relenting to such pressure would signal to Iran that America is comfortable with a terrible status quo, and would bolster the impression among our allies that we are willing to cede the region to the Russian-Turkish-Iranian axis. Which would be a mistake.

To date, President Trump's Iran policy has been mostly rhetorical. Other than decertification and shooting down two Iranian drones over Syria, the United States, writes Middle East analyst Tony Badran, "has relied on an indirect approach, premised on avoiding direct confrontation with Iran and its instruments," such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen. But, adds Badran, "this indirect, long-term approach has proven futile and counterproductive." Iranian proxies have used the opportunity to consolidate their positions and expand their reach.

That has led to an Iranian presence on the border of Israel, inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq, and missiles fired at Riyadh from the portions of Yemen under Houthi control. And all the while the mullahs in Tehran and their Revolutionary Guard Corps continue to benefit from the economic opportunities realized in the JCPOA.

The Trump administration seems to have recognized that Iran has the upper hand and started to resist. In recent days H.R. McMaster and Mike Pompeo have warned against Iranian influence in Syria, the administration has said that American forces will remain in Syria in the aftermath of the ISIS campaign, and Nikki Haley has denounced Iran's illegal transfer of weaponry and technology to the Houthis. Monday brings the release of the president's national security strategy, which is sure to have similar harsh language.

What has been missing is direct action against either Iran or its proxies. Instead we have a patchwork policy of containment that does not contain. Reuel Marc Gerecht describes it this way: "The White House annoys Tehran with minor sanctions, sells more weaponry to Gulf Arabs, occasionally has a second-tier official—the secretary of state—give a speech on Iranian oppression, leaves some troops in Syria and Iraq, and calls it progress." Gerecht's language is illustrative of the limits on American power that we have imposed on ourselves. A gnat annoys. A superpower overwhelms.

Having already to deal with tensions on the Korean peninsula, war in Afghanistan, and a global counterterrorism campaign, the temptation must be strong for the president to use the Sunni powers as U.S. subcontractors in the fight against Iran. He of all people should know that subcontractors are sometimes unreliable. But the cost of enhanced Iranian power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf is not printed on an invoice that the United States can refuse to pay.

Last week the president ignored received opinion and acted on the common sense notion that reality is indeed as it seems, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and that willful ignorance is no escape from that fact. The conflagration that his internal and external critics predicted would follow this assertion of truth failed to materialize. Is it too much to hope that in 2018 he will follow his instincts once more, and act upon a concrete appraisal of the situation despite the insistence of elite opinion to the contrary?

For the JCPOA really is, as the president has said, a terrible deal. Iran does not have the interests of either the United States or our allies in mind. And speeches are no substitute for the unapologetic assertion of might in the right.