Let's Beat Iran—Not Just at Soccer

Column: The nuke-pursuing mullahs richly deserve an actual defeat

Christian Pulisic
Getty Images
December 2, 2022

President Biden could not contain his excitement. It was November 29 and he had just learned that the U.S. men's national soccer team was headed to the next round of the World Cup after winning a match against Iran by a single goal. Eager to spread news of America's victory, Biden returned to the stage at the Michigan venue where he had just delivered remarks on the economy.  Chants of "USA" broke out in the crowd. The president joined in the celebration. "That's a big game, man!" he said.

Indeed, it was. I was among the estimated 12 million people who watched the game on television that afternoon. I cheered when the 24-year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic kicked the winning goal though it meant he'd be injured. My stomach was in knots during the second half as the Americans, without Pulisic, fended off a sustained Iranian offensive. I was happy to see good sportsmanship among the athletes on both teams and welcomed the comments that Iran's team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, made a few days earlier in support of the anti-government protests roiling his country.

But let's be serious. A soccer game is no substitute for grand strategy. And right now, Biden's Iran policy is a shambles. The Islamic theocrats who rule Iran are responding to internal revolt with savage repression and external terror. They murder their own people, even children, while providing Russia with the means to commit atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. They continue to pursue nuclear weapons while ramping up their efforts to kidnap and assassinate regime critics, including former high-ranking officials of the U.S. government. They violate Iraq's sovereignty with attacks on America's Kurdish allies and fund the Houthi rebels terrorizing commercial traffic in Yemen. Iran is the very definition of a rogue state: reckless, violent, incendiary, and cruising for a bruising.

Biden and his officials, to their credit, have said that they stand with the Iranian people against the oppressive regime. Biden has levied sanctions on Iranian government officials and organizations associated with the brutal crackdown on demonstrators. It's a start. Otherwise, Biden has wasted time.

He spent more than a year in a pointless diplomatic waltz in Vienna over the Iranian nuclear program—negotiations that the administration now admits have broken down. He invested political capital in a short-lived truce in Yemen that, at the time of writing, has been defunct for two months. He backed an Israeli-Lebanese maritime agreement that will strengthen Iran's proxy Hezbollah (and that Israel's next government may modify or overturn). His passive-aggressive relationship with Saudi Arabia jeopardizes the Mideast's emerging anti-Iran alliance. And his miserly defense spending requests erode America's military deterrent.

"A new era of direct confrontation with Iran has burst into the open," writes David Sanger of the New York Times. The confrontation has been one-sided. The Iranian government has trespassed the boundaries of civilized behavior. Yet the American response has been either negligent or desultory, depending on the circumstances and, in the previous administration, on the president's mood. Biden abandoned the policy of maximum pressure in favor of multilateral diplomacy and has nothing to show for it. He has every reason to abandon this failed approach.

The potential rewards of a change in strategy are great. Iran is vulnerable. Three months ago, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of religious police sparked a nationwide uprising. It hasn't ended. The mullahs have lost legitimacy. Iranians want a better, freer future than the clerics can provide. And Iran has further isolated itself diplomatically by providing Russia with drones and possibly missiles. The regime's crimes at home and abroad have silenced most—but not all—of its apologists. The courage of the protest movement is hollowing out the power of the regime from within. The application of external pressure could cause it to collapse.

If all goes well, military force won't be necessary. But for all to go well the Ayatollah, his army, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps need to take the threat of force seriously enough that it scrambles their calculations and spooks them into concessions. Thus, the first step toward defeating the Islamic revolutionaries in charge of Iran is reviving America's defenses and demonstrating America's commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf.

The next step is repairing America's alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis must understand that America supports the anti-Iranian coalition. And America must recognize that criticism of Israel's incoming government should take second place to more important priorities such as expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia and coordinating both covert and overt actions against the Iranian nuclear program.

Then comes the ideological offensive. President Biden can no longer afford to treat foreign policy as a distraction from his domestic goals. He needs to make the case, directly and frequently, not only for continued American assistance to Ukraine but also for supporting the domestic opposition to a pariah regime that endangers the world. And he needs to do it using the same rhetoric as Ukrainians and Iranians who resist subjugation because they desire freedom.

Next year, the Republican House majority and Republican senators can remind the Biden administration that only a broad and sustained effort backed by a credible deterrent will inspire dissidents and punish the malign behavior of the Iranian regime. It will take a bipartisan effort to revitalize American leadership and help the Iranian people attain their aspirations for democracy. A win in soccer might be enough for some countries. Not for Team USA.