Iran is not an existential threat to the United States, but treating it as such could turn it into one. The Trump administration’s concerns about Iran are understandable, but its latest policy is unnecessary, counterproductive, and harmful to American interests.
On April 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States will soon start sanctioning anyone—even vital allies—who imports Iranian oil. With pressing challenges from North Korea and China, it makes no sense to harshly punish important allies such as Japan and South Korea—or important future allies like India—just because they import oil from Iran. Nor should the United States be encouraging Tehran to conclude that it needs nuclear weapons after all.
Persuading Iran to forgo nukes, using sanctions relief and trade, was the point of the Obama-era nuclear deal. Then President Trump reinstated oil sanctions against Iran last May, and on Nov. 3 formally withdrew the United States from the agreement, citing worries about Tehran’s persistent missile testing and support for various terrorist groups in the region.
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Iran threatened to restart its nuclear program after America’s withdrawal, but has not done so. In the meantime, the European Union and several U.S. allies have tried to work around sanctions in order to keep Tehran in compliance with the deal. Even so, Iran’s economy has tumbled, and its people have suffered. In 2018, overall inflation was nearly 48 percent, with a higher 73 percent inflation rate for food prices. And on April 8, Washington again increased the pressure by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, as a foreign terrorist organization.
Yet through all this, Iran has still not pursued nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency, as noted in an April 15 report by the Congressional Research Service. This means there’s no good reason for Washington to turn up the heat now. Moreover, such sanctions against Iran are counterproductive because they help Iranian hardliners criticize President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, and gain more power at his expense. Rouhani may not be much to America’s liking, but he is a far cry from the kind of nationalist leader Washington could be dealing with.
So far Iran hasn’t really retaliated, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Iran could choose to pursue an atomic bomb after all, and if that happened, it would be disastrous for U.S. interests in preventing proliferation and would create a new threat when there was none—all because the current administration wanted to act tough and wasn’t happy with the generally successful Iran nuclear deal.
Iran knows that without deterrence it cannot win any fight against America and therefore it will try to avoid war. But just because Iran’s leaders are smart enough not to provoke hostilities doesn’t mean they are cowed or stupid. They know that they could be invaded or attacked at any time by Washington—just as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were. Countries without weapons of mass destruction could be a minor annoyance one day and destroyed the next. Yet countries with nuclear weapons, like North Korea, are able to protect themselves from the United States.
So putting Iran in a tight spot will only bolster the hardliners’ arguments to get nuclear weapons. And what happens if regime-change advocates get their wish and the people in the streets attempt to topple the Iranian government? Who would take charge? Or what if the Ayatollah dies or hardliners win elections in 2021? In any of these scenarios, it is easy to imagine what would happen if Iran’s nationalistic military took over—it would become even more hostile and violent. They would certainly ramp up military support for Iran’s allies and further needle America’s partners. The military might help other groups to kill more Americans in the Middle East, or try to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran is a bad actor, but it is not currently after a nuclear bomb, or actually so threatening that sanctioning American allies is worth it. Washington should focus on deterring actual nuclear powers like North Korea, China, and Russia—not waste its energies elsewhere.