Trump’s Iran pol­icy noth­ing like Obama’s fail­ure in Syria

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Fol­low Marc A. Thiessen on Twit­ter, @marc­thiessen.

Af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump called off a mil­i­tary strike on Iran for its down­ing of a U.S. mil­i­tary drone, some com­pared his de­ci­sion to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s shame­ful fail­ure not to en­force his “red line” in Syria.

Sorry, the two situations are com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Trump was right to show re­straint, and his Iran pol­icy is work­ing.

Un­like the Syr­ian regime, which used chem­i­cal weapons on civil­ians in di­rect de­fi­ance of Obama’s threat to use mil­i­tary force, the Ira­nian regime did not cross any “red line” drawn by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The Post re­ports that Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo sent a pri­vate warn­ing to Ira­nian leaders in May “that any at­tack by Tehran or its prox­ies re­sult­ing in the death of even one American ser­vice mem­ber will gen­er­ate a mil­i­tary coun­ter­at­tack.”

Pom­peo has pub­licly said such a strike “would likely take place in Iran it­self” and has even held up Obama’s fail­ure to strike Syria, and Trump’s sub­se­quent de­ci­sion to do so, as ev­i­dence that Trump would not hes­i­tate to act. “You saw the strong action he took when [Bashar al-] As­sad used chem­i­cal weapons, right?” Pom­peo said.

Yes, Iran’s leaders did see. It is no mere co­in­ci­dence that they have been care­ful not to cross Trump’s red line. They at­tacked Ja­panese and Nor­we­gian oil tankers, not American ones. They shot down an un­manned U.S. drone, not a manned American P-8 that was re­port­edly fly­ing in the area. (Trump called that “a very wise de­ci­sion.”)

Trump would have been well within his rights to strike Iran in re­sponse to th­ese acts of war. But Trump knows he does not have to prove will­ing­ness to use force, which he has demon­strated twice in Syria. He also knows Ira­nian leaders are lash­ing out be­cause they are buck­ling un­der the weight of the un­prece­dented sanctions he has im­posed. Iran’s oil ex­ports have dropped from 2.5 mil­lion bar­rels per day in April 2018 to just 300,000 bar­rels per day this month — an 88 per­cent re­duc­tion.

The State De­part­ment es­ti­mates that oil sanctions alone will deny the regime $50 bil­lion in rev­enue, or 40 per­cent of Iran’s an­nual bud­get. Thanks to Trump’s “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign, Iran’s econ­omy is con­tract­ing, inflation is spi­ral­ing, and it has been forced to cut fund­ing for its ter­ror­ist prox­ies Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas, the Ira­nian mil­i­tary and the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran’s goal is to get that pres­sure lifted. So in­stead of strik­ing back mil­i­tar­ily, Trump struck back eco­nom­i­cally. On Mon­day, he an­nounced even more sanctions — tar­get­ing sev­eral IRGC leaders, as well as For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, and supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei’s of­fice — that Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin said would “lock up lit­er­ally bil­lions of dol­lars more of [Ira­nian] as­sets.”

That will hurt Tehran far more than a lim­ited mil­i­tary strike ever would have.

It also un­der­mines Iran’s ob­jec­tive of di­vid­ing the United States from its allies. Tehran is try­ing to send a mes­sage that Trump caused this es­ca­la­tion by im­pos­ing sanctions and pulling out of Obama’s nuclear deal — and that things will get worse if the allies don’t get the United States to back off. But Iran’s ac­tions, com­bined with Trump’s re­strained re­sponse, are hav­ing the op­po­site ef­fect — strength­en­ing the case for sanctions and al­lied unity.

By not tak­ing the bait, Trump has shown that all the es­ca­la­tion is on the Ira­nian side. Trump can now tell our re­luc­tant allies: Iran has to be pun­ished for its bla­tant vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional law. Iran can be pun­ished mil­i­tar­ily or fi­nan­cially — which do you pre­fer? If any­thing, he should be using this in­ci­dent to push allies to im­pose tough sanctions of their own.

Af­ter all, Iran just launched an un­pro­voked at­tack on a NATO ally. Not long ago, allies were lec­tur­ing Trump about the im­por­tance of Ar­ti­cle 5 of NATO char­ter, which says that an at­tack on one NATO mem­ber is an at­tack on all. Where is their com­mit­ment to Ar­ti­cle 5 now?

While Trump tight­ens the eco­nomic screws on Tehran, mil­i­tary action is not off the ta­ble. The fact that Trump was mo­ments away from or­der­ing a mil­i­tary strike should serve as a warn­ing to Tehran. “I think a lot of re­straint has been shown by us, but that doesn’t mean we’re go­ing to show it in the fu­ture,” Trump said Mon­day.

His mes­sage was clear: Iran got one free pass; it may not get an­other.

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