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Another Really Bad Foreign Policy Idea — Appeasing Iran

Nicey-nice will not work with Iran

If Joe Biden is not reelected in 2024 — either because he withdraws from the race, or because he is defeated at the ballot box — the chief reason will likely prove to be his open-door policy at the United States southern border, through which over 370,000 illegal immigrants are now pouring every month. Biden began his presidency by rescinding all his predecessor’s executive orders regarding immigration, including the highly effective requirement that asylum-seekers first present their claims abroad prior to entering the United States.

But the manner in which the United States is being yanked around by the Iranian mullahs will be a close second. Nor are the two crises unrelated. The open southern border makes it easy for Iran to bring operatives into the United States. Among the hundreds of thousands of illegals entering the United States monthly are approximately 50,000 from Venezuela, whose Marxist leaders are closely allied with Iran.

FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress three months ago, “As the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism, the Iranians, for instance, have directly, or by hiring criminals, mounted assassination attempts against dissidents and high-ranking current and former US government officials, including right here on American soil. And... Hezbollah, Iran’s primary strategic partner, has a history of seeding operatives and infrastructure, obtaining money and weapons, and spying in this country going back years.”

Biden’s poll numbers began to plummet during the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which the US abandoned more than 10,000 locals employed by our forces to their fate at the hands of the Taliban and left behind tens of billions of dollars of our most advanced military hardware. And those poll numbers have never rebounded since.

His approach to Iran, however, is Afghanistan on steroids. Though there are strong isolationist tendencies on both the American right and left, even the isolationists, certainly those on the right, do not wish to see America humiliated. And they will be even less happy when the price increases and supply delays sure to be caused by allowing the Iranian-backed Houthis to close the Red Sea to shipping begin to hit hard.

Between Inauguration Day in January 2021 and March 2023, American forces in Iraq and Syria were attacked 78 times by Iranian proxies, the head of US Central Command told Congress. That was nothing compared to the three and a half months since October 7, during which there have been 165 attacks on American forces alone, culminating last week in three US Army servicemen at a border patrol station in Jordan being killed by an Iranian-supplied attack drone.

After nearly a week of delay following that drone attack, American bombers finally hit 85 Iranian-affiliated sites in Iraq and Syria. But only after first alerting Iran to the timing of the American response, and giving them ample time for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders to repair back to Iran. Nellie Bowles, the Free Press’s resident satirist, captured the moment well: “The key to military strategy is to announce it loudly and clearly a week or two ahead of time, that’s what it said in The Art of War, I’m pretty sure.”

Prior to those air strikes, the Biden administration’s initial response was to assure Iran that it did not seek escalation of tensions (Secretary of State Blinken) or view itself as at war with Iran (National Security Council spokesman John Kirby). “The US does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world,” President Biden announced.

To mitigate pressure for a strong American response against Iran, senior administration officials leaked “intelligence findings” that Iran does not have complete authority over its regional allies. Yes, Iran sends its regional proxies, through the IRGC’s Quds Force, money, weapons, and senior military advisors, sets up command-and-control infrastructure, and provides its allies with battlefield intelligence and target selection, but the mullahs may not specifically order each strike by one of its subsidiaries. In the eyes of the administration, then, all the above are not enough of a smoking gun to label Iran a major adversary.

IN TRUTH, the extreme deference to Iran has long been American foreign policy. And it is largely based on the assumption that the one result that must be avoided at all cost is military confrontation with Iran. As long ago as the November 2006 issue of Commentary, Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute described a consensus that “had taken root in the minds of America’s foreign-policy elite… that military action against Iran is a sure formula for disaster” (“Getting Serious About Iran: A Military Option”). Better to think about how the United States can live with a nuclear Iran, in the minds of those same savants.

President Obama fully shared that assumption. He came into office determined to placate Iran for past wrongs suffered at American hands, including CIA involvement in the overthrow of the Communist-leaning Mossadegh government in 1953. He believed that doing so would encourage Iranian moderation in pursuing its nuclear goals.

In addition, he developed a truly loopy theory that by elevating Iran to the role of regional hegemon, with a Shiite crescent extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, he could create a balance of power between Shiites and Sunni regimes that would allow American withdrawal from the region. As observers as disparate as the Alter of Slabodka and economist Thomas Sowell have noted, the greatest damage is usually done by bright people with boundless self-regard. Obama’s plan to strengthen Iran could serve as a prime exhibit. Joe Biden, for instance, would never have thought of such an idea, though he would subsequently sign on to it.

The idea that Iran would ever become a status quo power failed to take seriously the regime’s theological roots. From the beginning, Ayatollah Khomeini described his goals in terms of the spread of Islam worldwide, not in terms of Iran’s national interests. That theological bent is fully captured by the name of regime’s strongest arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its international arm, the Quds Force, devoted to the recapture of Islamic lands, chief among them Jerusalem.

While negotiating the JCPOA nuclear treaty with Iran, President Obama asserted from time to time that “all options,” including the military, were on the table, but no one took him seriously, least of all the Iranians, particularly after Obama abandoned all his previously announced “red lines” in Syria, in the face of Bashir Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Similarly, Obama dropped all his previously announced red lines in negotiating the JCPOA agreement, which effectively sanctified Iran’s developing nuclear weapons by 2030. Far from lessening the danger of nuclear war, the JCPOA virtually guaranteed a nuclear arms race in the Middle East among some of the world’s least stable regimes. And rather than allowing decreased American involvement in the region, efforts to appease Iran have only deepened American involvement, to the point that President Biden openly frets today about events in the region triggering a world war.

The Obama administration policy of maximum conciliation and appeasement of Iran ended with the entry of Donald Trump into office. He promptly tore up the JCPOA, which had never been ratified as a treaty by Congress, and reinstituted strong sanctions on Iran. The result was to reduce the amount of money the mullahs could funnel to their terrorist proxies surrounding Israel on every side and to create economic instability in Iran that only strengthened internal opponents of the regime.

JOE BIDEN, HOWEVER, entered office determined to reinstitute the JCPOA and prepared to shower Iran with whatever it wanted in exchange for its agreement. The direction of the new administration was signaled by the appointment of Robert Malley as chief negotiator with the Iranians, the same position he had held in the Obama administration.

Malley is the son of Simon Malley, a Jew of Syrian and Egyptian descent who was one of the founders of the Egyptian Communist Party and a close friend of Yasser Arafat. The son fully inherited his father’s anti-Western views. Martin Peretz, the former publisher of the New Republic and Harvard professor, described his world view in Tablet: “Any opponent of American postwar international expansion is on the side of the angels, and a worthy candidate for rapprochement.”

In terms of the Middle East, Malley has been a consistent advocate for realignment toward Iran and away from America’s traditional allies, Israel and the Gulf states. After the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit, he and Hussein Agha, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators, wrote a long article in the New York Review of Books, seeking to remove the onus from Yasser Arafat for the failure of the conference. Malley’s views distinguished him from President Clinton and every other member of the American negotiating team.

Malley’s anti-colonialism and suspicion of America’s role in the world was more closely aligned with that of Barack Obama than any of the latter’s senior advisors, and he quickly became one of the chief architects of the Obama administration’s Iran policy. Biden’s tapping him for the same role in his administration was thus a flashing warning light.

Upon taking up the position of chief Iran negotiator for a second time, Malley pushed hard to secure sanctions relief for figures and organizations at the center of Iran’s sponsorship of global terrorism and the harshest clampdowns on the Iranian people themselves. Among those removed from sanctions list were the masterminds of the 1984 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina; Ebrahim Raisi, currently Iran’s president, and known as the “Butcher of Tehran” for handing out death sentences to over 5,000 opponents of the regime; and Ahmad Jannati, a particularly brutal cleric eager to execute demonstrators against the regime.

Even more unbelievably, Malley successfully pushed for the removal of the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations, to the shock of career officials across the US government. (Three Iran desk officials in the State Department resigned in protest.) And the Houthis were removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. (They have been recently reinstated, in the wake of their attacks on Red Sea shipping.)

Writing in Tablet, Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department official on the Iran desk, estimated that Iran would gain access to $90 billion in foreign exchange reserves and up to another $55 billion annually in oil revenues — monies it can spend without restriction to roil the region and world — from the sanctions relief. Iran, by contrast, made no concessions with respect to its ballistic missile program or support for proxy terrorist groups, or any commitments with respect to hostage taking (though it received $6 billion for four American hostages held in Iranian jails).

Remarkably, these tens of billions of dollars into the coffers of the regime in Tehran were not even given as rewards for Iranian agreement to reenter the JCPOA, but rather as “good will” gestures offered in the hope of winning Iranian favor. During the entire process, Iran refused to even negotiate directly the United States, but relied on Russian and Chinese intermediaries. Russian’s top nuclear negotiator in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, has bragged about how “Iran got much more than it could [have] expect[ed] — much more,” and of how Russia and China teamed up to secure dozens of wins over the United States for Iran, their fellow non-status-quo power.

Of course, the Iranians undoubtedly did keep close contact with Robert Malley, who was eventually suspended from his post for sharing classified information with the Iranians. But not before he had succeeded in planting others known to have sought and taken instruction from the Iranian foreign ministry into the upper echelons of the departments of Defense and State.

Ariane Tabatabai, a second-generation American-Iranian, is, for instance, the chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Christopher Maier. She has on several occasions sought guidance from the Iranian foreign ministry as to which conferences she should attend and which not, as reported by John Solomon in Semafor. She was also approved by the Defense Department for a top-secret security clearance, giving her direct access to the most sensitive real-time details of US special forces operations. (Not surprisingly, Malley was recently hired by Yale to teach a course in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Most astonishingly, the United States has continued to shower the mullahs with billions of dollars, even as the regime has allied itself ever more closely with Russia and China. Iran recently signed a 25-year oil-for-technology-and-arms deal with China. And it has supplied Russia with thousands of lethal drones, and is thought by US intelligence to be on the verge of providing Russia with ballistic missiles to be used against Ukraine, according to Richard Goldberg, former head of the anti-weapons of mass destruction desk at the National Security Council.

And even after Hamas’s murderous rampage on October 7 and Hezbollah’s attacks across Israel’s northern border since then, the United States provided a waiver to Hamas and Hezbollah’s chief sponsors in Tehran, allowing them to access $10 billion from Iraq. In addition, the Biden administration permitted a UN missile embargo on Iran to expire.

The bowing and scraping to Iran has become reflexive and automatic, while only emboldening Iran and its proxies to strike more deeply at the US and its allies.

IT IS LONG PAST TIME, writes William Russell Mead, one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, to pronounce the Biden administration’s Middle East policy as having “catastrophically failed” and set the region on fire. That means, first and foremost, recognizing that “Iran cannot be conciliated,” as Elliot Cohen, the former dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, titled an article in the Atlantic last week.

Nicey-nice will not work with Iran. But if Iran has proven indifferent to American carrots, there is evidence that it does respond to American sticks. After the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in international waters in April 1988 while escorting a Kuwaiti oil tanker and almost sank, President Ronald Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis. That operation involved aircraft and ships, and resulted in the sinking of half the Iranian fleet and the destruction of two sets of naval and intelligence facilities, and the end of Iran’s attempts at the time to control the Straits of Hormuz.

In January 2020, President Trump channeled Reagan by sending an American drone to eliminate Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force. Soleimani was then directing all Iran’s proxy wars throughout the Middle East and was widely considered the second-most-powerful man in Iran. His death was a major blow to the regime’s imperial designs, though clearly not the end of them.

During the Trump years, facing a much more confrontational American president, Iran did not increase its uranium enrichment to 20 percent, as it did in the early months of the Biden presidency. Nor did it strike at American targets with anything close to the frequency of the Biden years.

The US need not even carry out a direct strike at Iran; the IRGC offers plentiful high-value targets in the region — over 500 military sites in Syria alone. And as Arthur Herman pointed out in the aforementioned Commentary article, the elimination of Iranian oil refineries on the Persian Gulf would bring most transportation in Iran to a halt within weeks, and the capture of its largest oil wells near the Gulf by an amphibious American force would deal a heavy blow to the Iranian economy. No large-scale American ground force would be required, as was the case in Iraq. The key point is that Iran has certain vulnerabilities that do not require an invading army to expose.

The proper response going forward with respect to Iran and its proxies is not carefully calibrated, “proportionate responses” to the attacks on the US or its allies. That approach only leaves Iran and its proxies in control of the game. It beggars belief, for instance, that the United States, either alone, or in conjunction with other major maritime powers, has not yet removed a force of Yemeni tribesmen who have succeeded in largely closing shipping through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal.

Swatting away Houthi launched drones and cruise missiles is not enough. The objective, writes former federal anti-terrorism prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, is “not to even the score. It’s to end the contest.” And that requires not an equivalent response to the aggression of Iran or its proxies. What is required, argues McCarthy, is a response to “Iran’s deadly aggression that is devastatingly disproportionate to the scope of that aggression.”

Not likely under President Biden or whoever is calling the shots in D.C.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 998)

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