Abrogating the agreement will not enable Iran to build nuclear weapons; rather, abrogating the agreement will help the United States justify a military response once Iran is provoked into walking away from the agreement…

Iran Deal

Hassan Rouhani

The only thing surprising about President Trump’s decision to decertify Iran on October 14 is that it took so long. July seemed more likely, but there were too many distractions—from Obamacare and North Korea to the NFL and hurricanes—for him to devote adequate attention to the one foreign policy crisis he intends to create politically in order to solve militarily. North Korea, for all the bluster, is a sideshow.  Neither of our two strongest allies in that region, Japan and South Korea, want a military solution, nor does the nation with a paramount interest in protecting North Korea (that is, China) want any kind of military action to be taken. This is decidedly not the case with Iran. Our two strongest allies in that region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, want a military solution and have been nudging President Trump in that direction since his election. And unlike North Korea, Iran lacks a superpower that is willing to draw a redline in its defense. Instead, Iran must hope that the Russians and the feckless Europeans will somehow prevail upon the United States not to engage in yet another hapless effort at re-fashioning the Middle East.

Frustratingly, it was not always so. When Mr. Trump began his campaign, he set himself apart from almost all the other Republicans candidates in his stark criticism of the 2003 Iraq invasion and other past efforts at regime change. Specifically regarding Iran, he and Rand Paul were the only Republicans candidates to refuse to guarantee that the nuclear agreement with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—would be discarded. Mr. Trump did criticize the accord harshly and insisted he could get a better deal, but he wisely avoided an absolute promise to discard it. Indeed, his relatively lukewarm attitude on this and other issues made a number of other candidates—and some big Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson—conclude that he was not pro-Israel enough. But toward the end of the campaign and certainly since the election, President Trump has shown a disturbing inclination toward pleasing those who agitate for military conflict with Iran.

“Slouching toward Bushehr to Be Bombed”

It is bewildering the number of otherwise sane media commentators and policy analysts who warn against abrogating the nuclear agreement because it would then enable Iran to start building nuclear weapons. Can they really be that obtuse? They have it backwards: abrogating the agreement will not enable Iran to build nuclear weapons; rather, abrogating the agreement will help the United States justify a military response once Iran is provoked into walking away from the agreement.

The nuclear sites will not be attacked this month or next; there is still a good deal of work to be done before that occurs. The decertification will create a period where virtually all the rest of the world is siding with Iran, and it will take considerable diplomatic skill to move them toward our side, or at least toward neutrality. The United States must now seek every means possible to “save” the accord by improving it. We will urge what many will believe are reasonable modifications to the agreement, and we will work hard behind the scenes to assure all our allies and adversaries that we want to avoid military conflict if at all possible, and that all we want is a fairer deal that will protect our national interests and ensure the stability of the region. But these efforts will ultimately falter and after many months of wrangling, we will appear reluctantly compelled to finally employ a military solution.

As mentioned in an earlier essay I wrote for The Imaginative Conservative, the Trump administration has already decided to side unequivocally with Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran. The proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the refusal to mention Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record, the efforts to intimidate Qatar, the irrational support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Shi’a Houthis, and the quiet shelving of plans to move our embassy to Jerusalem without any complaint from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel were all small steps toward conflict. Now this week are added our quitting UNESCO and our decertifying the nuke agreement. The military option is still a long walk away, but step by step we are getting there. And the attack itself will be a very complicated one. Iranian defenses are constantly being upgraded and their nuclear installations are dispersed and hardened. We do have next generation “bunker busters” that will cause great damage, but the logistics for such attacks would be challenging and the risks to our personnel worrisome. This will not be an easy stroll like Operation Opera, when the Israelis successfully attacked Iraq’s lone nuclear facility.

Iran Could Save Itself

Of course, a military conflict is not yet inevitable.  Many things may intervene and preclude an attack. If the North Korea crisis turns into a true military confrontation, there will be no stomach for a second such conflict. Or if China and Russia, with a strong assist from our European allies, firmly oppose a military solution, it may be forestalled. Or perhaps some domestic crisis will preoccupy us and render the possibility of a military conflict less palatable. And even Congress may intercede and refuse to re-impose sanctions—but this is unlikely because unquestioning support for Israeli priorities and unbridled disdain of Iran are two of our few remaining bipartisan foreign policies.

But the best chance to avoid conflict is for the Iranians simply not to take the bait. They could remain steadfast in adhering to the agreement regardless of American provocations. May 19, 2017 was a sad day for hardliners in Israel and neoconservatives in America. When the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won reelection that day against several Iranian hardliners, the task of promoting conflict became much harder. Had any of the other candidates won, a military conflict could have been assured without even having to decertify the agreement.  But Iranian restraint and diplomacy may yet succeed. Even our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, after meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif in September grudgingly conceded that he was a “well educated, very sophisticated” man. This is not the image that needs to be cultivated if we are to attack. In order to justify an attack, the Iranians must be seen as ruthless and unprincipled, and we must be seen as saving the Iranian people from their evil government. That old canard—incessantly and mindlessly muttered by my former State Department colleagues—that Iran is the chief state sponsor of terrorism and the greatest threat to Middle East stability needs to be highlighted and enhanced to convince the American people that we had no real alternative to military conflict.

Yet, even without its nuclear capabilities, Iran poses a serious threat to Saudi Arabia’s ambition of regional hegemony and Israel’s desire for security. While we should have no interest in reinforcing Saudi Arabia plans for regional domination, we do have legitimate worries about Israel’s security. But subjecting the Iranian people to aerial bombardment will not, in the long term, either advance our interests or safeguard Israel. Iranian behavior in the region is a serious concern, but instead of tearing up the nuclear agreement we should be using it as a starting point to engage with the Iranians on a whole host of other issues. Common ground can be found, but not if we continue to blindly endorse Iran’s adversaries and refuse to hear their own grievances.

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