It’s been two weeks since a majority of Congress sought to register its disapproval of the Iran deal but fell short of the votes necessary to break a filibuster or override a presidential veto, and most politicians and commentators have moved on.
It’s understandable to want a mental break after a long and hard-fought struggle. But the world hasn’t taken a break. The consequences of the deal are already reverberating.
On Monday, September 21, Iran self-inspected a key suspect nuclear weapons site without international inspectors present. “This deal is not built on trust,” President Obama had told us. “It is built on verification.” But apparently we trust Iran to carry out that verification. That same day, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a two-and-a-half-hour emergency meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin (followed by a meeting of Russian and Israeli military chiefs) to discuss Russia’s military presence in Syria.
The front page of the Wall Street Journal on September 22 captured the new Middle East, with a picture of Netanyahu meeting Putin at the top, and below it the headline “Russia, Iran Team Up in Syria.” Putin is depicted as the central player with whom sworn enemies Iran and Israel have to deal. And where is the United States? At best, watching from behind. At worst, making life more difficult for our friends and allies. We’ve become like William Macy in the 2003 movie The Cooler, whose very presence and proximity turns people’s luck bad.
Such is the strategic reality that has emerged from the Iran deal. It has put an exclamation point on a collapse of American leadership that had been building during the entire Obama administration (and the last part of the Bush administration, too). It signaled a decisive reversal of decades of American dominance of the Middle East. Following our feckless blunders in withdrawing from Iraq, drawing but not enforcing a red line in Syria, and declaring quasi-war but doing very little against the Islamic State, the Iran deal was the straw that broke the camel’s back of American credibility in the region. It blessed the emergence, 15 years hence, of a nuclear-weapons-capable and ballistic-missile-armed Iran, enriched and empowered a vehemently anti-American and anti-Israeli, terrorist-supporting regime, and spurred nuclear proliferation in the region.
What is to be done? We can mitigate some of the deal’s costs in the near term, walk away from it as soon as possible, and act to prevent rather than enable or try to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. These must be fundamental elements of any successful U.S. national security policy.
How does one begin?
First, don’t obsess about sanctions. Recognize that eagerness to do something can get in the way of doing what is needed. Sanctions can be an important tool of foreign policy, but they are a limited tool. Lawmakers concerned about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program naturally gravitated toward sanctions as one of the few areas where the legislative branch can lead and set foreign policy. But this also gave many members of Congress an easy but ultimately ineffective out. Sanctions did not succeed in pressuring the regime in Tehran to cease its nuclear program. Even as they damaged Iran’s economy, the regime continued installing new centrifuges. Obama was right when he said, “Sanctions alone are not going to force Iran to completely dismantle all vestiges of its nuclear infrastructure.” Sanctions are only one supporting element of a new policy against Iran.
Second, stick to what works. The sanctions fixation obscured a strategy that actually has an empirical record of reining in illicit nuclear programs: a credible military threat. Tehran suspended parts of its nuclear program in 2003-04, when the mullahs worried they’d be next after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. The Iraq war also led Muammar Qaddafi to destroy his nuclear program. More recently, in September 2012, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a red line at Iran acquiring a bomb’s worth-about 155 kilograms-of 20 percent enriched uranium. At the time, Iran was already dangerously close to this threshold; but it never crossed it. Hearing and, more important, believing Netanyahu’s implicit threat, Iran chose to keep its stockpile from exceeding Israel’s red line.
Third, the next president-especially if he or she wisely walks away from the deal-must use this credible military option not only to prevent Iran from going nuclear but also to confront Iran more broadly in the region. We can never be safe, nor can we ever regain international credibility, if Iran develops nuclear bombs or runs free as a dominant regional power. Attaining the capability to prevent these things will require freeing the U.S. military from the shackles of sequestration and boosting its capacity in the Middle East and beyond.
We have compared this period to the late 1930s, when the West, tired of war, failed to confront the strategic challenge of Nazi Germany. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin fiddled as Europe began to burn. But even in Baldwin’s last year in office British military spending increased significantly, and it rose further under Neville Chamberlain, a total of 83 percent between 1936 and 1939. At least Chamberlain recognized that Britain had to rearm, even while he pursued appeasement.
Obama, however, is slashing defense budgets. After five years of sequestration, the United States is on course to have the smallest Army since 1940 and the smallest Navy since 1930. As a group of retired high-ranking military leaders put it in a report commissioned by the Jewish Institute for Natioal Security Affairs: “Should the worst happen-should Iran threaten the security of our allies, should it decide, after 15 years, to sprint for a nuclear weapons capability-the U.S. armed forces will rise to challenge, but they will do so with less manpower, fewer capabilities, more antiquated platforms and a lower level of readiness than they have now or have had in a very long time.” It is amazing-and appalling-that the United States will not have an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as the Iran deal goes into effect. The United States must also continue efforts to develop weapons to defend against Iranian aggression-particularly missile defense systems-as well as, if necessary, to degrade and destroy their nuclear infrastructure, whether through cyberattack or the 30,000-pound, bunker-busting, Fordow-penetrating Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP).
Fourth, boost the military capability of Israel and of our Arab allies, while ensuring Israel retains its qualitative military edge. The United States can help Israel acquire the tools to be more self-reliant both in its offensive and defensive capabilities. Congress has a big role to play here. Congress, with Obama’s support, has supplied Israel with financial aid for its Iron Dome system, which worked well in the war with Hamas in Gaza last year, but which will not suffice in the face of Hezbollah’s tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. The United States can significantly augment Israel’s missile defense capabilities, as well as work with it to improve its anti-mortar capabilities. American offensive help to Israel can begin with offering Israel MOPs and the spare B-52s that can deliver them. B-52s could also help Israel in a war with Hezbollah, which would surely be part of any conflict it has with Iran. Serious thought must be given to how else best to boost Israel’s defensive and offensive capabilities, and to do so in a manner dramatic enough to signal Iran, as well as others, that we will stand by Israel.
Britain required a new leader, Winston Churchill, in 1940 to finally address the Nazi cancer. The United States needs a new leader as well, a Republican with a firm understanding of America’s role in the world and the steel to pursue our interests properly and relentlessly. Still, re-armament helped provide the tools when Britain regained its will. When we have an American leader willing to restore America’s place in the world and actually prevent a nuclear Iran, that president too must have the tools-as must the Israelis-to do the job.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on October 5, 2015.