Iran's 'Behavior' Isn't Threatening Americans
December 3, 2017
John Glaser / The Washington Post & Robert W. Merry / The American Conservative
Analysis: Citing "support for terrorist organizations" and "active ballistic missile development program" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced that the Trump administration is "committed to addressing the totality of the Iranian threat." But the obsession with these Iranian policies amounts to threat inflation. Neither poses a serious threat to America's domestic security or core national interests and they don't warrant jettisoning a thus-far successful nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
Iran's 'Behavior' Isn't Threatening Americans.
Don't Use That Pretense to Scrap the Nuclear Deal
John Glaser / The Washington Post & The Cato Institute
(November 29, 2017) -- In a speech Tuesday at the Wilson Center in Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration is "committed to addressing the totality of the Iranian threat," asking America's allies "to join us in standing up to all of Iran's malign behavior," including its "support for terrorist organizations" and "active ballistic missile development program."
He echoed President Trump's rationale last month for decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, an Obama-era agreement that put a lid on Iran's nuclear program by imposing a set of restrictions and a comprehensive inspections regime.
Like Tillerson, Trump cited two issues that lie outside the deal itself: Iran's support for proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Houthi rebels in Yemen; and Iran's development of ballistic missiles.
But the obsession with these Iranian policies amounts to threat inflation. Neither poses a serious threat to America's domestic security or core national interests and they don't warrant jettisoning a thus-far successful nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
As Thomas Juneau recently argued for The Post, "Tehran's support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal." They aren't primarily Iranian proxies, but characterizing them as such serves a narrative perpetuated by the Saudi Arabian government, the Iranian regime's chief regional rival. Hamas barely holds on to power in Gaza, one of the most impoverished, densely populated and smallest slices of territory in the world.
Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political party based in Lebanon, functions as an Iranian proxy and has, in the past, been linked to attacks on Americans: the group was implicated in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack; in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, Hezbollah targeted the US Marine Corps barracks and the US Embassy annex, respectively, killing 243 Americans, attempting to force a US military withdrawal. But unlike al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, there's not much today to suggest that Hamas's, Hezbollah's or the Houthi rebels' mission is attacking United States.
Trump says Iran is "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism," while Sen. John McCain warns that, "A web of Iranian proxies" threatens the "stability, freedom of navigation and the territory of our partners and allies." Even though the Iran deal deliberately disaggregated Iran's support for these groups from the issue of its nuclear ambitions, Trump has heaped the issues together rhetorically to argue that he has no choice but to tear the deal up.
Not only does that obfuscate the aim of the deal, but it serves to obscure the fact that the United States looks away as Iran's rivals engage in behavior that is similar, or worse, than Iran's. For several years now, the Saudis, with American support, have relentlessly bombed Yemen in a campaign against the Houthis that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to being investigated by the United Nations for war crimes, one of the consequences of the Saudi's military campaign has been to bolster the position of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi actions have had greater negative impact on US interests, in terms of regional destabilization, intensification of a proxy war and the expansion of al-Qaeda, than Iran's support for the Houthis.
In contrast to the regional agendas of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Saudis have long been implicated in promoting and exactly the kinds of Sunni militant groups that try to target the US: the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups boosted by the Saudis have perpetrated more than 94 percent of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001.
If we can tolerate such behavior from an ally such as Saudi Arabia, surely Iran's support for its proxies is a poor excuse for scuttling an agreement that effectively restrains an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Iran is not known to possess and reportedly does not seek, missiles that can reach US territory. The Pentagon, as well as the US Institute of Peace, have repeatedly assessed in recent years that Iran's military posture is defensive in nature. Earlier this year, with respect to Iran, Sen. Tom Cotton said, "I don't see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism." Presumably, though, Cotton makes an exception for the despotic, theocratic regime in Riyadh that enjoys bipartisan Washington support.
At any rate, Iran is profoundly unlikely to attack the United States. America possesses an overwhelming nuclear deterrent; and we remain the world's largest economy, with a GDP 50 times that of Iran. Iran's annual military spending is around 5 percent of ours and 9 percent of their region's total. Iran has a large army -- around a half million troops -- but can't meaningfully project power beyond the Middle East.
Indeed, Iran's regional behaviors are only a threat to the United States to the extent that we continue to insist on meddling unnecessarily in a region whose strategic importance has been overstated for decades. We have thousands of troops and multiple bases in the region, and we've been in a constant state of war there for years with little to show for it. The prevailing strategic rationales for America's excessive over-involvement in the Middle East -- defending Israel, fighting terrorism and protecting the free flow of oil -- don't even come close to justifying the costs of pursuing them.
Even if Iran challenges other regional powers, that's not a reason to get rid of a deal that prevents it from gaining nuclear weapons. It makes nonproliferation a more crucial security priority than ever.
Abandoning the nuclear deal doesn't make Israel any safer: Most of Israel's military and intelligence community agrees that facing an Iran with a nuclear program under tight inspections and limitations is better than facing an Iran with an expanding nuclear program hidden from international monitors. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, we're applying a double standard. And when it comes to directly safeguarding US security, we're safer when we don't elect to adopt the region's problems as our own.
John Glaser is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
Would 'Rexit' Mean First Step Toward War With Iran?
There's no counterweight to Kushner, Neocons
or other hawks in White House
Robert W. Merry / The American Conservative
(December 1, 2017) -- If reports are correct that Rex Tillerson is going to be fired as US Secretary of State, to be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton taking Pompeo's old job, then prospects for war with Iran become significantly greater. Tillerson has been less bellicose in his attitude toward Iran than either Pompeo or Cotton, who are both fervid critics of President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, and ardent advocates of getting the United States back onto a collision course with the Islamic State.
The New York Times on Thursday quoted "senior administration sources" as saying White House chief of staff John Kelly had crafted such a shake-up in President Trump's foreign policy team, though it wasn't clear whether President Trump had signed off on it. If he does, as is likely, expect the administration to go after Iran aggressively.
For context, here's a little history. Back in late 2006, major officials of the George W. Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, strongly advocated a US attack on Iran's nuclear capability.
According to Time writer Joe Klein, Bush rejected the idea on the advice of his top military advisers, who argued that the Islamic State could devastate US forces in nearby Iraq in retaliation, and also unleash a possibly effective terrorist war against Americans. The president opted instead for a covert destabilization campaign, a plan that soon leaked to the media.
But the idea never died among some "neoconservative" administration officials, and it was fueled further by agitated voices from outside the country, notably from Israel and Saudi Arabia. An internal memo dated April 2008, released by Wikileaks in 2010, referred to repeated exhortations from Saudi King Abdullah that the United States should "cut off the head of the snake" -- meaning destroy the Iranian regime that was Saudi Arabia's most troubling regional adversary.
It had become all the more powerful and menacing in the region, of course, through Bush's invasion of Iraq and destruction of that nation's Sunni leadership. Now that country fell under the sway of its Shia majority, rendering it more receptive to an alignment with Iran. The regional balance of power was upended. So now King Abdullah wanted Bush to double down and initiate a military adventure in Iran similar to the one that had created the hopeless mess in Iraq.
That sentiment was echoed by Israel, which suggested in diplomatic discussions that, if the United States shied away from such an action, Israel might adopt a go-it-alone strategy, which of course inevitably would have elicited a strong Iranian response and likely drawn the United States into a war with Iran.
There was a lot of war talk in those days, and it was never clear that Bush would resist the call from neoconservatives to end Iran's nuclear program and curtail its regional sway through military action.
Then in late November 2007 came news that the US intelligence apparatus had issued a National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran actually had abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions back in 2003, though it still wanted to develop a nuclear capacity for nonmilitary energy uses. Said the NIE: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." This served to curtail Bush's range of action, and he wasn't pleased. As he later wrote: "NIE had a big impact -- and not a good one."
That was the state of play when Barack Obama became president in 2009 and promptly adopted a new approach to the Iranian challenge. Opting for diplomacy, he joined with five other world powers (Russia, France, China, Germany, and the UK) in an effort to craft a framework that would include the lifting of crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for curtailments in the country's nuclear energy program and assurances that Iran would eschew any nuclear weapons development for 10 years. The deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was Obama's greatest foreign policy achievement.
Republicans hated it. During the GOP nomination battles, most of the candidates declared they would "tear up the deal on day one." Trump avoided such language, but he called the deal "disastrous" and one of the dumbest diplomatic agreements ever. He vowed to dismantle it. And yet he couldn't quite bring himself to do that when it came time for him to either certify or decline to certify that Iran had been complying with the agreement.
In mid-October, he declined to certify Iranian compliance (though the UN agency that monitors such matters had declared that Iran was in compliance). But he also declined to resume sanctions against Iran and kicked the question over to Congress.
According to The New York Times, one of the leading voices within the administration urging Trump to keep the deal intact was Rex Tillerson. The Times said that Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, "argued that it was in the national security interest of the United States to keep the deal's constraints on Iran."
But now Tillerson may be on the way out, and the big winner if he actually is fired will be Jared Kushner, Trump's 36-year-old son-in-law, who holds a plethora of titles: senior adviser to the president; deputy national security adviser for strategy; and special representative for international negotiations. If Tillerson gets fired, Kushner almost surely will have been one of the leading voices advocating such a move. He and Tillerson have been adversaries within the administration since the beginning.
What's more, Kushner has strong ties to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known informally as MbS), who is emerging as the most powerful Saudi of them all. As a senior Middle East diplomat told TAC's Mark Perry the other day, "Kushner and MbS aren't just close, they're very, very close." King Abdullah may be gone, but the Saudis still want America to cut off the head of the snake. And whenever the crown prince talks, Kushner listens very intently. And, by all accounts, whenever Kushner talks, his father-in-law listens intently.
Unlike Kushner, Tillerson manifested frustration with some of the more outlandish activities of the Saudi crown prince, most notably his diplomatic aggressiveness against the little kingdom of Qatar and his brutalization of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in an effort to get Hariri to resign his office -- which he did after being summoned by bin Salman to Riyadh for a thorough dressing down. (He later indicated he might reverse the decision.) But according to reports, Tillerson hasn't been frustrated just with the Saudis and their allies, the United Arab Emirates, but also with Kushner, whom he suspects of conducting his own foreign policy from inside the White House -- sometimes, it seems, with an eye toward Saudi interests.
It's reasonable to suspect he holds even more tender feelings toward Israel. He grew up in a religious home strongly devoted to the Jewish state, and his family has given millions of dollars to Israel, including some devoted to Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
When he was a teenager and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to visit, the Israeli leader slept in Jared Kushner's bedroom, while the teenager occupied another room in the house. He has visited Israel regularly since childhood and "holds strong views about the state of Israel," wrote The New York Times in an article about Kushner's close ties to the country. The paper added those ties are "personal and religious."
All this is entirely understandable. But the question is what kind of counterweight will emerge in the Trump administration to urge caution in US relations with Iran at a time when both Israel and Saudi Arabia want America to take on the Iranian regime.
It won't come from Pompeo or Cotton if they ascend to the positions they seem to be headed for. Pompeo has been described as a "fierce critic" of the Iran deal, and a recent headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared: "Mike Pompeo has a Hawkish History on Israel and Iran." Cotton, one of the most vociferous neoconservatives in Congress, has urged US actions to bring about regime change in Iran through covert activity, and he has argued that actual military action against the regime should be considered a serious option.
If personnel determine policy, as has been said, then these moves, if they occur, will drive the United States into a posture of increasing bellicosity toward Iran and a strong likelihood that Trump eventually will end America's commitment to the nuclear deal. If that happens, we'll be back to the war talk that filled the air back in the Bush years -- with growing prospects that it might not be just all talk.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist, author and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in November.
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