There's a new goal for US-Iran policy

There's a new goal for US-Iran policy
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More than a year after President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE withdrew the United States from the Iran deal, Iran announced its intention to enrich uranium beyond the levels permitted in the agreement, though the levels will remain well below what would be required to build a nuclear weapon. Tehran described the move as an attempt to spark new negotiations with our European allies and fellow JCPOA signatories, for since the United States’ withdrawal from the pact, Tehran has lamented other participants’ failing to hold up their end of the bargain. “This is to protect the nuclear deal, not to nullify it,” said Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi. “This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity, they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal.”

This announcement — and rising tension with Tehran more generally — requires the Trump administration to decide: Do we want to try, by whatever means necessary, to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon? Or do we want to ensure Iran stays at peace, never attacking the United States or our allies and, in time, evolving into a freer, more normal, and less threatening state?

Washington can choose the former option, in the sense that, as an unrivaled military power, coercing a far smaller, weaker, and poorer nation like Iran is feasible. But few advocating this maximum pressure approach seem willing to acknowledge what it realistically would entail.

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As John Mearsheimer recently outlined at The New York Times, forcibly keeping Tehran bombless would require a substantial, perpetual war. “Hard-liners will … advocate bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, but the Iranians will go to great lengths to make them invulnerable to aerial attacks,” he notes, and a sustained airstrike campaign would only “delay a determined Iranian effort to get the bomb by a few years at most.”

Though Mearsheimer assumes Washington is “not going to invade and occupy Iran—forever—to ensure that it does not go nuclear,” the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy suggest that sentiment may flow from an undue optimism. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was pitched as a means of forestalling Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction. It drags on as a forever war to this day, fitting Mearsheimer’s description precisely. And National Security Advisor John BoltonJohn BoltonGood riddance, John Bolton Williamson urges followers to contact Senate, House over possible Bolton replacement Trump called out for 'my favorite dictator' while awaiting Egyptian leader at summit: report MORE, a dangerously influential voice in this administration, has advocated attacking Iran for years. Invasion and occupation are a plausible outcome.

Indeed, airstrikes on Iranian nuclear and military facilities might be presented to the American people as a moderate option, an intermediate choice between diplomacy and conflict. But, as a moment of imagining how we’d respond to a foreign bombing campaign on our nuclear and military facilities makes clear, airstrikes themselves are war. And airstrikes will almost certainly escalate to all-out war.

When — not if — Iran retaliates against U.S. or allied targets or, as Mearsheimer writes, makes progress in developing nuclear weapons, Washington will respond with more military intervention. A limited air campaign will rapidly transform into ground war. Intervention will become invasion, followed by occupation and likely regime change and nation building as well. The hard-line approach will creep into a much larger mission than its supporters pretend. Washington will entangle the United States in an avoidable and unnecessary war, further destabilizing the Middle East, inflaming anti-American attitudes, and inflicting misery on ordinary Iranians. Tehran can be forcibly delayed from getting the bomb, but even “success” in that project would be failure. Maximum pressure is a doomed strategy one way or another.

In short, Washington can stop Tehran from going nuclear, but at what cost? That we possess the military capability to destroy targets does not mean we can “solve” this problem militarily. It would be madness to launch yet another permanent conflict inevitably bought at too high a price in blood and treasure both—and, ultimately, it still wouldn’t work. Escalating to war with Iran will cost us much while offering no guarantee of eliminating the threat Tehran actually poses. It undermines U.S. interests and the cause of Middle East peace.

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Thus, the decision at hand is about what we can do and what we should do. And what we should do is reject the advice of maximum pressure hard-liners and broaden our diplomatic efforts. Our primary aim is to avoid war and transform U.S.-Iran relations so future conflict becomes less likely.

This is undoubtedly a difficult prospect because of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and subsequent imposition of punishing sanctions. Those choices, reckless moves from the Bolton playbook, have narrowed our options and undermined our diplomacy. Still, the negotiating table is the only place sustainable progress may be made, and Iran’s explanation of its uranium enrichment decision suggests Tehran may be willing to take a seat.

To that end, President Trump, never one to shy away from a firing, would do well to replace Bolton and other intransigent interventionist voices on his team. That would be a step toward removing those who oppose the president’s goal of negotiations. Though Trump is unlikely to countenance a return to the nuclear agreement he deplores — and the original deal may be too badly damaged by U.S. withdrawal to be viably restored anyway—he should let Europe buy Iranian oil, abiding by the terms of the old deal so a new one potentially can be negotiated, which is his stated goal.

Rather than focusing exclusively on nuclearization, especially after recent U.S. actions have incentivized Tehran to pursue a nuclear deterrent, a worthwhile new deal would seek to avoid war and integrate Iran into the international community. Effective diplomatic and economic engagement have more power to liberalize, normalize, and prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb than war ever will. Military intervention would fail on all counts. Done right, a new deal could neutralize the limited threat Iran poses to the region through peaceful transformation instead of war. 

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.