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The Iran Problem – The Atlantic

The Iran Problem – The Atlantic
The Iran Problem – The Atlantic

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. A drone launched by an Iran-affiliated militia hit an American base in Jordan, near the borders with Syria and Iraq, killing three service personnel and wounding 25 more. Now, once again, the United States finds itself wondering what to do next.

The overpowering temptation for this administration is to engage in a game of tit for tat, aiming more frequently at things (missile launchers, for example) than people, and then to let things lie. Its fear, as ever, is of escalation, and it makes a point of saying so—as when, before the attack, Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated approvingly that “escalation is no one’s interest” and “no one wants to see more fronts opened in this conflict.”

Would that that were true. Escalation of a limited kind is absolutely in the interest of Iran, which definitely wants to see more fronts opened in this conflict.

Of the various failures of American policy in the Middle East, perhaps the largest has been its inability to deal with the totality of the Iran problem. This failing goes back to the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in 1979, and has been perpetuated by the preconceptions and hesitations of American policy makers since then.

The revolution was, from the outset, an anti-American enterprise, obsessed as its proponents were with American support for the modernizing if incompetent and occasionally brutal monarchy being overthrown. The regime has never had an interest in an accommodation with the United States, has never been willing to accept America’s presence in the Middle East, and violently opposes not just American policy but the things the United States stands for—a secular conception of nationality and even more important of the state, equality of rights for women, and the support of Israel.

The historian Bernard Lewis was correct when he said that, in some parts of the world, one should pay heed to what leaders say in private and not to what they say in public, but in the Middle East it is the other way around. Over the past four decades, the Iranian regime’s sulfurous rhetoric about the United States has been unrelenting. It has been the underlying mood music as the regime has gone about torturing and murdering its opponents at home, impoverishing its people, and extending its sway across the broader Middle East.

Deeds have followed words, mostly through Iranian-controlled proxies such as Hezbollah, which blew up first the U.S. embassy and then the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, then kidnapped and tortured to death the CIA station chief in Beirut in 1985. In the late 1980s, the Iranians attacked tanker shipping in the Persian Gulf; an American warship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, struck an Iranian mine in 1988. Harassment of shipping in the Gulf continues to this day. The Houthis, trained and equipped by Iran, have persistently attacked shipping in the Red Sea. In 2011, two Iranian nationals were even caught plotting the murder of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Since 2003, the Iranians have worked diligently to attack American forces in Iraq. Iranian-designed and -manufactured explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, were the most lethal roadside bomb in Iraq. They were delivered by the paramilitary Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which also provided training for their use.

Iranian-backed militias have attacked the U.S. embassy and other American compounds in Iraq. Since October, they have launched more than 150 attacks against American bases in Syria and Iraq. They have only wounded American personnel in those previous attacks, but this time they got lucky and killed three.

The American response has been a mixture of tit-for-tat retaliation (the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, being the most successful example) and a combination of negotiation and appeasement, including the 2015 JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was designed to slow (but not kill) the Iranian nuclear program. In 2023, a plan to release $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds in return for American prisoners in Iran was blocked just before it could take effect.

Throughout this period, Iran has extended its reach across the broader Middle East. Its clients are in power in Lebanon, Yemen, and, in some measure, Iraq and Syria as well. It wages war through its proxy forces against Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and, periodically, Saudi Arabia. And it has never relented in its effort to drive the U.S. from the Middle East or, more profoundly, in its hatred of America and all it stands for. Many, possibly most, of the people of Iran do not share these views, but they go to the heart of what the regime is all about.

American policy thus far has failed in several ways. It has always taken a segmented approach to the Iran problem—defining it as a hostage problem, or a freedom-of-the-seas problem, or a nuclear problem, or an Iraq problem, but rarely as what it is, an Islamic Republic of Iran problem. The U.S. government has never developed a strategy for applying military power effectively against Iran, which would have to be considerably more lethal and overwhelming than the individual blows launched in response to individual events. Nor has it appreciated the strength of the cocktail of anti-Western religious fanaticism, Iranian imperial aspirations, and fear of its own resentful middle class that drives the Iranian regime’s hostility to the United States. Since the days of the Carter administration, American officials, abetted by a small but vocal group of Iran apologists in academic and policy circles, have sought a deal with Iran that could never materialize. Above all, they have consistently underestimated the sheer malevolence of the Iranian regime.

This segmented, limited, and naive policy approach continues to fail, and each failure makes matters worse. The nuclear program has not stopped. Iran’s proxies are more powerful and daring than ever. The regime has grown more belligerent—note its overt missile strikes in Iraq and Pakistan in the past month. It has built a stronger partnership with Russia. Its rhetoric is as violent and hostile as ever.

The evolution of military technology makes all of this more dangerous. Iran is not a particularly advanced state, but it can manufacture long-range drones and missiles, which, when coupled with open-source information and human intelligence, can be accurately directed against all kinds of targets. The regime has gotten better and better at supplying its clients with drones and training them in their use; with Russian technology at its disposal, it will improve further. And in the background arises the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, supremely confident of its ability to deter a United States that has made a foolishly ostentatious display of its fear of nuclear escalation in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons will not moderate the ambitions of Iran’s leaders—they will further radicalize them.

An administration that believes that it has altogether too many crises on its plate surely finds the prospect of pursuing an alternative policy unappetizing. But the beginning of policy wisdom lies in accepting reality for what it is. By that standard, it is time to break decisively with the unwisdom about Iran that has bedeviled eight American administrations and has, slowly but surely, made matters worse in the Middle East and as far afield as Central Europe.

A different Iran policy would begin by making it clear that the United States was breaking with the failed approach of the past, that it understood Iran’s implacable hostility and would henceforth act on the premise that the Iranian regime can never be conciliated. It would be characterized by vigorous covert as well as overt support for the strong currents in Iran that oppose the regime and periodically erupt in protest against it. It would respond to attacks by Iranian proxies on the United States and its allies with massive, disproportionate, and above all lethal attacks against Iran’s Quds Force and IRGC units and command structures. It would include active measures to weaken the regime’s control of its population, which means in every way possible undermining and attacking its secret police. Above all, it would be, and appear, just as implacable toward Iran as its leaders are toward the United States.

In the absence of such a policy, Iran will grow stronger and more malevolent, not less. It will play a greater and more effective role in the emerging anti-American coalition of Russia, China, and North Korea. And contra Secretary Blinken’s laudable wishes, Iran will expand and escalate war in the Middle East and beyond. Changing American policy is not a good choice, but it is the best choice before the administration. Or, as Shakespeare’s Henry IV puts it, “Are these things then necessities? Then let us meet them like necessities.”

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