by Bruce Thornton
The mullahs can only be stopped by means of “the mailed fist.”
While the media obsess over chimeras like the president’s obstruction of justice for nonexistent crimes, and AG Barr’s impeachment for obeying the law, a collision between the U.S. and Iran is brewing in the Middle East. The question now is whether Iran will finally face the reckoning it has invited and deserved for 42 years, or the latest crisis will peter out into U.S. saber-rattling and empty threats.
Donald Trump has made a good start at ending our nearly half-century appeasement of a regime that has declared war on the U.S. and backed it up by murdering Americans and working to create nuclear weapons that would make even more difficult, or even prohibitive, the price of punishing them for their aggression.
Since Jimmy Carter’s timid, feckless response to the 1979 American embassy hostage crisis, we have signaled to the mullahs that we will not exact a cost for their aggression. And this failure has been a bipartisan effort. When in 1983 Iranian proxies murdered 241 of our military personnel in Beirut, the Reagan administration pulled out even as the French and the Israelis strafed and bombed “Little Tehran,” the terrorist camps set up in the Beqaa Valley by Tehran, which nurtured the attackers. Since then Iran has been implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and periodically taken hostage American citizens and sailors. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s Quds Force, the regime’s shock troops of global terror, have facilitated and participated in the murder of our soldiers. And it has continued to train and financially support terrorist gangs like Hezbollah and Hamas.
More recently, under the leadership of Al Quds chief Qassem Soleimani, Iran has been working to establish bases in Syria, and has sent thousands of Iranians and mercenary jihadists to help prop up thuggish Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, it has been building up an armed presence on Israel’s northern border in preparation for Iran’s long-time goal to “wipe Israel off the map.” Closer to home, Iran has sent forces to Venezuela to prop up caudillo Nicolás Maduro and maintain a friendly base for developing terrorists to sneak into America and attack the homeland.
After 42 years of U.S. appeasement of Iran’s aggression, Trump is pushing back. He has withdrawn the U.S. from Obama’s disastrous “Iran deal,” which removed economic sanctions and paid a $1.5 billion bribe just to buy at best a 10-15-year delay in the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons. Trump has restored punitive sanctions and is imposing “maximum pressure,” as National Security Advisor John Bolton put it, on the regime to starve it of the oil revenue it uses for its adventurism in Syria and its clandestine nuclear weapons and missile programs. In addition, Trump has placed the Republican Guard Corp, the mullah’s private security firm at home and fomenters of terror abroad, on the list of terrorist organizations, and put sanctions on the Guard’s extensive economic assets.
And the impact on Iran’s economy is starting to bite. A deteriorating economy and runaway inflation––in the last month prices for food, drink, and tobacco have risen 85%–– have roiled the country. According to Middle East analyst Shoshanah Bryen as quoted by Michael Ledeen, there have been scores of public demonstrations in multiple cities; chants praising Reza Shah, the ruler and Westernizing reformer overthrown by the jihadists in 1979; calls for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to “leave the country alone”; and continuing nationwide strikes against the regime by truckers, bazaar merchants, teachers, students, farmers, and railway workers. The government has jailed and killed protestors, but economic conditions continue to worsen, and Iran seems heading closer to civil war.
Feeling the pressure, the mullahs have responded to Trump’s plan to end sanctions waivers for countries still buying Iranian oil by announcing Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal––which we know from Israeli intelligence it has been violating anyway––if the sanctions are not lifted,; and by threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which passes a fifth of the world’s oil. Hamas’ recent 36-hour, 600-missile barrage against Israel on May 4 and 5 was also likely an Iranian-ordered response to Trump’s increasingly tough moves. And an attack last weekend on two Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian ship near the Gulf likely came from Iran.
In response to these threats, the Trump administration has planned sanctions on Iranian metal exports, its second biggest source of export revenue. More important, he has ordered to the Red Sea the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group, accompanied by the USS Arlington warship; and deployed bombers, stealth aircraft, Patriot anti-missile batteries, and fighter jets throughout the region. We have also made it clear to the Iranians that we will hold them responsible for any attack by their proxies on American forces, and retaliate against Iranian territory and Revolutionary Guard bases.
Such events could be converging towards a violent showdown between the U.S. and Iran. How, then, to respond? On the one hand, Iran could be bluffing, using bluster and histrionic threats to save face. Its domestic economicl weakness and military puniness compared to the U.S. may concentrate the mullahs’ minds and restrain its actions. In Iran’s war with Iraq in the late Eighties, the mullahs attempted to create chaos in the Persian Gulf by attacking international shipping and the USS Stark, killing 37 sailors and injuring 21. We responded with operation Earnest Will, which destroyed Iranian naval vessels and mine-layers, and Revolutionary Guards bases located on oil platforms. Iran stopped the attacks. The mullahs may not be ready yet to provoke our military might again.
In that case Iran may try to wait out Trump in the hopes that he will be removed from office in 2020, and replaced by a weak-kneed Democrat who like Obama finds “diplomatic engagement” a convenient excuse to avoid action. Given how eagerly our European “allies” want to do business with Iraq and circumvent sanctions, not to mention China’s insatiable appetite for oil, it’s not an unreasonable bet to wait for regime-change in America to restore the appeasement status quo ante. After all, even if Iran has slowed down its nuclear development in recent years, it still maintains the expertise and infrastructure for manufacturing nuclear weapons that can be mounted on missiles capable of reaching most of Europe. As the dysfunctional pygmy-state North Korea has shown, possession of nuclear weapons deters not just weak sisters like the EU, but also a superpower like ours despite the most powerful military in history.
On the other hand, we should not be hasty in assuming that Iran is merely blustering. Its economic weakness and domestic disaffection with its expensive adventurism abroad are seismic forces building towards a political earthquake. And we can’t be sure how the mullahs will respond. They and their praetorian Revolutionary Guards may be just a corrupt gang out for self-enrichment, and will hurry to jet off into exile when the end is near. Or they may be religious fanatics, true believers in an apocalyptic cult that will welcome the domestic and regional violence as an opportunity to destroy Israel and usher in the global triumph of Islam. Can we afford to wait and settle the question with experience, the teacher of fools?
We can’t. We are approaching the time when Iran must face a reckoning and pay for its decades of aggression against us and our interests. More delay brings us closer to Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, which will radically increase the costs of action and endanger our most important ally, Israel. A Democrat U.S. president and Congress in power will return us to Obama’s appeasing policies that have facilitated Iran’s increasing aggression. Finally, sanctions take time, and economic collapse could spark a civil war that will create chaos with unpredictable consequences.
For now, Iran has given the West 60 days to ease sanctions waivers, and Trump has postponed the sanctions on metal exports for 90 days. But we can’t afford to wait any longer. The president’s actions over the last two years have stopped the appeasement and put the mullahs on notice that we will no longer participate in the kabuki theater of “diplomatic engagement” and unenforced swiss-cheese treaties and “plans of action” that remain all “plan” and no “action.” But all that is just step one. The next step requires mind-concentrating action. If Iran makes good on its threats to close the straits, or if its proxies attack and kill American troops in Syria, then our response must be devastating and linked to escalating levels of destruction until the mullahs get their minds right.
To paraphrase Duff Cooper’s comments about Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal with Hitler in 1938, the mullahs cannot be stopped “through the language of sweet reasonableness,” but only that “of the mailed fist.” The Europeans and our own globalists will counsel even more of the former, relying on a Micawber foreign policy based on the hope that “something will turn up” to save them from the politically risky costs of action. We should not listen to them. It’s time for Iran to feel the “mailed fist.”
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter