When the U.S. withdraws its diplomats from a foreign country amid a security threat, the domestic reaction in a previous age would have been to show solidarity against an adversary. But this is Washington in 2019, so the loyal opposition is reacting to the threat from Iran by blaming—President Trump.
“Either the Trump administration is trying to goad Iran into war or a war could come by accident because of the administration’s reckless policies,” declared former Obama official Wendy Sherman Wednesday, after the State Department withdrew personnel from Iraq.
Ms. Sherman is sore that Mr. Trump withdrew from the failed nuclear deal that she helped negotiate with Iran, but even she must realize that Shiite militias in Iraq often act as proxies for Iran. Does she want another Benghazi? Yet she blames Mr. Trump for a “march to war with Iran” and wants Congress, Europe and business leaders to “stand in [national security adviser] John Bolton’s way.” Senator Bernie Sanders says he’s also worried about “provocations on the part of the United States against Iran.”
Who does Ms. Sherman want to stand in the way of Gen. Qassem Soleimani? He’s the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that used the windfall from Ms. Sherman’s nuclear deal to finance terror and instability throughout the Middle East.
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Even as the U.S. abided by the nuclear deal, Gen. Soleimani fed the war in Yemen against the Saudis, intervened to save Bashar Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, tried to establish a terror beachhead in southern Syria against Israel, expanded ballistic-missile production, and financed the terrorist militias of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Denying Iran the trade and money to finance this adventurism is a major reason Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal before Mr. Bolton was even in his current White House position.
The real story behind the current Mideast tension is that Iran is acting out because Mr. Trump’s policy of applying maximum pressure is working. The U.S. recently designated the IRGC as a terrorist group, which will hurt its many business interests. Washington also has closed loopholes on the sale of Iranian oil and announced new restrictions on Iran’s metals exports. All of this has Tehran lashing out with anger and threats.
President Hassan Rouhani said last week that Iran will explicitly violate the 2015 nuclear deal by stockpiling low-enriched uranium and heavy water. Mr. Rouhani demanded that Europe find a way to work around U.S. oil and banking sanctions within 60 days, or Iran will ignore the deal’s uranium-enrichment caps and restart construction of its Arak nuclear reactor. Mr. Rouhani also threatened to unleash migrants, drugs and terrorists on Europe.
Europe said it won’t bend to threats. And the reality is that the Continent has already tried to develop a financial work-around to U.S. sanctions, but European companies don’t want to take the risk. The problem for Iran is that withdrawing from the nuclear deal, and even stockpiling enriched uranium again, may drive Europe back into a united front with the U.S.
Iran has already ignored United Nations Security Council prohibitions on arms shipments and missile tests. When the country overproduced heavy water in 2016, the Obama Administration rewarded the bad behavior by buying surplus heavy water from Iran. In January Iran’s nuclear chief said the country has been preparing to break out from the deal for years.
Meanwhile, Iran’s allies in the region are acting in ways that suggest the hand of Gen. Soleimani. Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen appear to have used drones to attack a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Attempts to sabotage ships in and around major oil routes also may have been Iran’s handiwork.
The White House last week dispatched bombers and an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf after intelligence warned of a possible attack against Americans or U.S. allies. The show of force is intended as a deterrent, and it should prevent a direct attack on the U.S. Navy.
But Gen. Soleimani likes to inflict casualties using proxies that allow for deniability. As careful followers of American politics, the Iranians will notice that Democrats like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Sherman are blaming Mr. Trump pre-emptively for any hostilities. This could encourage Iran to think it could get away with a reckless attack against Americans.
The goal of U.S. strategy isn’t to start a conflict but to get Iran to stop its terror support and renegotiate the nuclear deal. Mr. Trump has invited Iran to talk anew, and the Europeans can help by joining the U.S. pressure campaign, rather than lobbying Washington to cave to Tehran’s threats. With Iran threatening to leave the nuclear pact, and its companies unwilling to defy American sanctions on Iran, Europe has no reason to mollify the regime.
Ms. Sherman and the Obama Administration gambled that a nuclear deal would cause Iran to change its revolutionary behavior and become a normal country. The bet failed. Mr. Trump’s alternative of sanctions and diplomatic pressure is now forcing the regime to make hard choices about its support for militias abroad even as it faces growing unrest at home. If Iran or its proxies react to this pressure by killing Americans, don’t blame Mr. Trump. Blame the state sponsors of terrorism in Iran.
Appeared in the May 16, 2019, print edition.