US can af­ford to stay calm with Iran

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

Pres­i­dent Trump re­cently or­dered and then called off a re­tal­ia­tory strike against Iran for de­stroy­ing a U.S. sur­veil­lance drone. The U.S. as­serts that the drone was op­er­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional space. Iran claims it was in Ira­nian airspace.

An­ti­war crit­ics of Trump’s Jack­so­nian rhetoric turned on a dime to blast him as a weak, vac­il­lat­ing leader afraid to call Iran to account.

Trump sup­port­ers coun­tered that the pres­i­dent had shown Iran a fi­nal ges­ture of pa­tience – and cleared the way for a stronger re­tal­i­a­tion should Iran fool­ishly in­ter­pret his one-time for­bear­ance as weakness to be ex­ploited rather than as mag­na­nim­ity to be re­cip­ro­cated.

The charge of Trump be­ing an ap­peaser was strange com­ing from left­ist crit­ics, es­pe­cially given Trump’s past readi­ness to bomb Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad for al­legedly us­ing chem­i­cal weapons, his will­ing­ness to de­stroy ISIS through en­hanced

air strikes, and his lib­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can forces in Afghanista­n from prior con­fin­ing rules of en­gage­ment.

The truth is that Iran and the United States are now en­gaged in a great chess match. But the stakes are not those of in­tel­lec­tual gym­nas­tics. The game is no game, but in­volves the lives, and pos­si­ble deaths, of thou­sands.

The lat­est Amer­i­canIra­nian stand­off is not like that of 1979-1981, when theo­cratic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies re­moved the Shah, stormed the U.S. Em­bassy in Tehran, and took Amer­i­can hostages for 444 days – and hu­mil­i­ated Amer­ica.

Iran fears there are now no such Amer­i­can li­a­bil­i­ties. Forty years later, Amer­ica has no pres­ence in Iran. It has long since given up on bring­ing Tehran back into the Western fold.

There are no Amer­i­cans in Iran to be kid­napped and no Ira­nian al­lies in­side Iran to be saved. Iran has no lever­age over the United States, at least not as it did in 1979.

Nor is the cur­rent con­fronta­tion rem­i­nis­cent of the 2003-2011 ten­sions in the re­gion. The United States is not fight­ing a ground war in the Mid­dle East, much less one on the border of Iran.

The U.S. no longer be­lieves in na­tion-build­ing the au­to­cratic Mid­dle East into Western-style democ­ra­cies. Amer­i­can troops are not in jeop­ardy from Ira­nian ground at­tacks. Amer­i­cans have no fi­nan­cial or psy­cho­log­i­cal cap­i­tal in­vested in lib­er­al­iz­ing Iraq, much less Iran and its en­vi­rons.

Nor is the sit­u­a­tion like the chronic Ira­nian ten­sions of the last 40 years in which an oil-de­pen­dent U.S. feared Iran clos­ing the Strait of Hor­muz, or the sud­den cut­off of im­ported oil, en­sur­ing Nixon-era gas lines.

Amer­ica is now the largest pro­ducer of gas and oil in the world, soon to be the largest ex­porter as well. The U.S. econ­omy is boom­ing. Iran’s is im­plod­ing.

The economies of China, Ja­pan and Europe de­pend on the free flow of Mid­dle Eastern oil. But China is cur­rently in a trade war of nerves with the United States. An ap­peas­ing Europe doesn’t have the de­sire to help ramp up sanc­tions on Iran to prevent its nu­cle­ariza­tion, nor is it ea­ger to ac­cede to U.S. en­treaties to in­crease de­fense spending and en­hance the NATO alliance. Ja­pan is try­ing to deny Ira­nian ag­gres­sion in fear that the global oil mar­ket might spike on news of Per­sian Gulf ten­sions.

In other words, both al­lies and en­e­mies ex­pect the United States to en­sure that their ship­ping and their oil are safe.

Nor are we too con­cerned for our long­time ally Is­rael with re­gard to Iran. An im­pov­er­ished Iran is bereft of al­lies and re­mains an in­ter­na­tional pariah, des­per­ate to sell its em­bar­goed oil to any rogue au­toc­racy shame­less enough to buy it. Is­rael is nu­clear and has never been mil­i­tar­ily stronger. It is now self­suf­fi­cient in oil and gas.

Is­rael has forged new ties with China, Rus­sia and the Euro­pean Union, and re­newed its tra­di­tion­ally close re­la­tion­ship with the United States. Iran’s neigh­bors in the Arab world are ei­ther in a mess or clan­des­tinely al­lied with Is­rael. The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and Ha­mas have never been weaker vis-à-vis Is­rael.

Time is on the Amer­i­can side. Each day Iran grows weaker and poorer, and the U.S. stronger and richer.

Iran’s only hope is to draw the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion into a messy Iraq­like ground war, or, at worst, a Balkans-style, months-long bomb­ing cam­paign – with plenty of CNN footage of civil­ian col­lat­eral dam­age.

How, then, can the U.S. de­ter Ira­nian es­ca­la­tion with­out get­ting into an un­pop­u­lar war be­fore the heated 2020 elec­tion? It merely needs to per­sist in the pre­sent stand­off: Ramp up the sanc­tions even tighter and ig­nore pa­thetic Ira­nian at­tacks on for­eign ships.

If Tehran pre­emp­tively at­tacks an Amer­i­can ship or plane, it will be met by a dis­pro­por­tion­ate re­sponse, prefer­ably one aimed not at civil­ian in­fra­struc­ture but at the Ira­nian mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy, Revolution­ary Guard and theo­cratic elite.

Oth­er­wise, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion can sit back and mon­i­tor Iran’s in­ter­na­tional os­tracism and eco­nomic iso­la­tion while re­main­ing un­pre­dictable and enig­matic, ready to hit back hard at any at­tack on Amer­i­cans but with­out be­ing suck­ered into an op­tional war with Iran in the peren­nial Mid­dle East quag­mire. Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, and the au­thor of the soon-to-be re­leased “The Sec­ond World Wars: How the First Global Con­flict Was Fought and Won,” to ap­pear in Oc­to­ber from Ba­sic Books. You can reach him by e-mail­ing au­[email protected]

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