The Trump administration is caught in a fever dream about Iran, and the fever is becoming dangerous.
In the wake of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – which the US blames on Iran, though questions remain about the attack – the discourse on Iran being pushed by the administration and others is reaching fever pitch. Senator Tom Cotton has called for a “retaliatory military strike”. The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens says the US should threaten to sink Iran’s navy.
This, of course, is not surprising to anyone who has watched the Iran debate in Washington. It’s divorced from reality.
Everyone knows that Iran’s government is dangerous. It represses the Iranian people. It sponsors terrorism across the Middle East. The question is not whether Iran is bad – the question is what the best strategy is to deal with the threats.
During the end of George W Bush’s administration and Barack Obama’s terms, the priority was stopping Iran’s nuclear program. After years of a carefully coordinated global sanctions campaign, the Obama administration secured a deal that stopped Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency and even the Trump administration certified that the deal was working. Before, during, and after the deal, the US has countered Iranian terrorism and bolstered Israel’s defenses.
None of it has been good enough for those trapped in the fever dream. The fever dream convinces policymakers to cozy up to regimes from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates that are themselves awful. It rationalizes support for a devastating war in Yemen. It causes the State Department to fund, until recently, a group that attacked journalists and experts for not being anti-Iran. Locked in the fever dream’s grips for years, John Bolton in 2015 called for bombing Iran.
All of this is in lieu of a realistic set of goals or a strategy for actually achieving them. It’s a fever dream, and only those with the fever seem to be able to make sense of the dream. US allies from Europe to Asia are frustrated with how much sway the fever dream has over US policy; they wonder what could possibly drive the US to abandon such a successful deal.
It reminds one of the absurdity and recklessness of those who talked about bombing North Korea in 2017 – which could have started a nuclear war – and how completely they ignored the catastrophic consequences.
Most worrying, it reminds one of the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 – how the Bush administration lied about Iraq’s possession of WMD and links to terrorism, and how Americans were told the invasion would be a “cakewalk” and that America would be greeted as a liberator. Reports of a rare, recent high-level meeting on Iran at the CIA before the latest round of warnings over Iran should concern those who remember the politicization of intelligence before the Iraq war.
The result of it all is a heightened risk of conflict. And though the Trump administration claims it does not want war, secretary of state Mike Pompeo reportedly said that the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) – passed in order to fight those involved in 9/11 – could authorize a war with Iran (which the AUMF does not).
America needs to have a real conversation about Iran. We need to make clear that Iran is not ten feet tall.
We can’t let the fever dream drive US policy in the Middle East. Israel has the region’s strongest military, and with continued US support it can defend itself. America will continue to counter Iranian-sponsored terrorism. America does not need to blindly support countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the name of countering Iran. These governments repress their own people, stoke regional conflicts, and have funded terrorism and radical indoctrination abroad. When the United States partners with Saudi Arabia by supporting a war in Yemen – supposedly to counter Iran – that creates a humanitarian disaster, America has lost sight of its interests.
To develop an effective strategy, America needs to put itself in Iran’s shoes. After the US invaded two of Iran’s neighbors – Afghanistan and Iraq – tensions got even worse with Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and deadly fights between Iranians and American soldiers in Iraq. America believes Iran’s aggression has intensified while Iran believes America is surrounding Iran.
Lost in the fever dream is the need for a dialogue with Tehran. A strategy of pressure alongside dialogue produced the nuclear deal. The US should talk to Iran about the future of Afghanistan and Iraq. And there is a broader dialogue to be had – alongside pressure – about regional security.
Iran could do more to push a crisis to the brink as well. With Trump ripping up the nuclear deal, Iran is saying it will enrich uranium beyond the limits of the nuclear deal. If it was responsible for the oil tanker attack, more destabilizing acts could follow. That could lead to a vicious cycle that raises the chances of war.
We need to wake up from the fever dream and have a real debate about Iran, develop a real strategy for Iran, and start a real dialogue with Iran.
Michael H Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs