In his latest entry in our Atlantic debate on the Iran deal, Philip Gordon appears distinctly uncomfortable with the inescapable part of American preeminence—U.S. willingness to use force fairly often to maintain the liberal world order, which the United States created after World War II. Unlike many on the left and right, Gordon actually recognizes that this order is both real and good, and we would miss it sorely if it were to vanish before the assault of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, and Ali Khamenei’s Iran. Contrary to what Barack Obama often suggested, the West is special, and it’s the anchor for a moral order that keeps much of the world from descending into a Hobbesian state of nature.
The burdens of leading the Western alliance are large. They have sometimes pitted America against the Europeans. The scholar Bob Kagan once asked the French, who came very close to joining the United States in the Second Iraq War, to please give America another pole in their sought-after “multipolar” world. If the Europeans want to veto American foreign policy, then they should put more skin in the game. Alliances exist for a reason; they are not ends in themselves. This point has sometimes been lost in discussions of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Many Democrats and Republicans tend to see congenial relations between Americans and Europeans as the ultimate good, more important than, say, corralling and defeating the Soviet Union; stopping a savage, aggressive, weapons-of-mass-destruction hungry tyrant in the Middle East; or thwarting the Iranian regime’s quest for the bomb.
Gordon seems to believe that walking away from President Obama’s Iran deal will leave America in an untenable position with our allies. That we will be lonely and globally weakened. But trans-Atlantic ties are vast, even in this era of retreating American power and Trump. And exercising American leadership on a deeply contentious issue lets everyone—especially the Russians and the Chinese—know that we are deadly serious about maintaining American hegemony and shutting down nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Gordon greatly overstates what the Europeans can do for us or how much they can hurt us, and severely underestimates the inability—the unwillingness—of Europe to operate without us. The welfare state ate European capacity and self-confidence decades ago.
One of the biggest problems with the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy was that it compromised a long-evolving, fairly serious, Western European consensus on the Iranian regime—the European Union oil embargo, something that President Obama didn’t seek, was the ultimate expression of this growing seriousness—for a bad deal. The French made it clear during the diplomacy that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that they didn’t really like the developing deal, that its flaws were large and numerous, and that Obama and his team were proceeding with unnecessary speed. The Iranians weren’t rushing to a bomb (American military power, even in the age of Obama, mattered).
Would that the Europeans would do more now to help Trump correct Obama’s mistakes. But once Washington compromised them, they reverted to where they were before fear of American and Israeli preventive military strikes spooked them into diplomacy in 2003.
Europe’s trade with Iran is again at stake. So, too, is principle and pride. If the Europeans expressed open agreement with the views of President Trump, a man despised by the Western European elite, they would also have to admit that they had agreed in 2015 to an egregiously defective deal. They would have to admit that their entire investment in the diplomatic track with the Islamic Republic—easily the most consequential diplomatic initiative so far undertaken by the European Union—had come to naught. In other words, the Europeans would have shown themselves, once with Obama and now with Trump, to be American toadies. They understandably won’t do that.
So America will have to move without them, which is okay. Hurting the Iranian regime economically, reestablishing a sensible policy that deprives Iran of the hard currency it uses to fuel its Shiite imperialism, means America has to discourage the Europeans from putting their cash and know-how into the Islamic Republic. The Europeans will have to choose, and I am pretty confident they won’t choose the Syrian-slaughtering-Bahai-murdering-homosexual-oppressing-female-veiling mullahs over us. The trans-Atlantic relationship may look shaky—especially if Trump erects serious tariffs against the European Union in pursuit of his “America First” economy. But the West will almost certainly survive.
But so far it has. The nuclear accord is all about trading sanctions relief for temporary nuclear restraint. The Europeans are at least commendably forthright in discussing their extreme reluctance to implement new sanctions—for any reason—against the regime precisely because they fear the mullahs will abandon the deal. Which brings up the morally revolting part of the accord, the one that compelled Gordon to cite the Defense Intelligence Agency, a rarely perused authority on internal Iranian politics, in support of the unsustainable contention that monies transferred to the regime under the deal went primarily to “domestic” spending. Common sense, let alone a thorough reading of official Iranian statistics and the Persian press, ought to show that imperialist religious dictatorships don’t put health care and bridge repair at the top of their priorities. (See, for example, the admitted 24 percent increase in the Revolutionary Guard budget in 2017-2018; the real figure is probably far higher.) This wasn’t troublesome for Obama since he apparently viewed American intervention in the Middle East as a greater evil than Iranian imperialism.
America shouldn’t punt this problem down the road. I don’t think our situation will be better in 2025 when the JCPOA allows the regime to build openly advanced centrifuges. If the deal’s advocates have their way, the mullahs by then will be richer from greater trade, more technically advanced, and unchallenged in their imperialism. But many indices for the regime today are bad, some may even be pre-revolutionary. It’s a good time to apply far more pressure. And seven years down the road, militarily and economically, the United States will probably be weaker as the welfare state grows, and domestic demands and deficits take precedence over defense spending and further sap national will. This doesn’t seem felicitous to me. So yes, it is preferable—even with Trump as president, which causes me enormous pause—to have a “nuclear crisis” now.
Many on the pro-deal side seem to believe that the JCPOA strengthens America’s hand vis-à-vis Kim Jong Un. This awful analysis of North Korea springs from the same mindset that depicts Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate and the nuclear deal as a tool to reinforce pro-Western forces among Tehran’s ruling elite. North Korea is an Orwellian nightmare of vast cruelty, violence, and slavery. How could anyone still believe that the United States could use bribery—the driving contention of the 1994 Agreed Framework that aimed to curb the North’s nuclear program—to dissuade the North Korean regime from continuing its nuclear quest, which now entails the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles? Perhaps this disposition derives mostly from fear—it’s just too frightening to contemplate the possibility of another war on the Korean peninsula, so one bends the analysis of the regime to allow a diplomatic option, a sliver of hope, to exist. But that doesn’t mean you can bribe a totalitarian state.
I seriously doubt that Donald Trump can do anything to convince Kim Jong Un to relinquish his nuclear arsenal, given the enormous North Korean conventional military threat to Seoul and the big benefits that come to Pyongyang from possessing nuclear weapons. But if something is possible, it will be because Trump has reanimated the specter of American might. The Islamic Republic’s religious fascists aren’t as Orwellian as the North Korean Communists. Iran’s Islamic culture—some of the very institutions that allowed the Islamic revolution to triumph—have braked the lethal nastiness and oppression of the mullahs and kept more humanity in Persian society. Nonetheless, the regime is deeply, unrelentingly ideological, and Gordon, just as with the Kim dictatorship, appears to believe it’s possible to bribe it.
So what should the United States do against the Iranian regime? First, walk from the deal and snap back the nuclear sanctions (returning American sanctions to full force will actually take time). Until the administration leaves the JCPOA, the national-security bureaucracies won’t get serious about devising a strategy against the Islamic Republic. That’s just the way Washington works. Second, make it clear that if Khamenei drives towards the bomb, Washington will respond militarily. Third, establish a no-fly zone against Iranian and Russian aircraft throughout southern and eastern Syria. All Iranian Revolutionary Guard and militia air and ground transport into Syria should be interdicted. Fourth, maintain American special-operations forces in Syria and restart, this time seriously, an American effort to build Sunni Arab and Kurdish forces capable of defeating Syrian regime forces. Irrespective of the JCPOA’s dénouement, the French likely remain open to a more serious Franco-American partnership in the Levant. Washington should embrace that partnership. Fifth, bunker down U.S. forces in Iraq. Play the best diplomatic and aid game possible with the Iran-hostile and Iran-suspicious Shia, which is easily a majority of the Iraqi Shia. Sixth, deploy a serious covert-action program aimed at the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s scientific establishment. The primary objective: Sow dissent and encourage defections. Seventh, make it clear that the United States, always ready to open the U.S. embassy in Tehran, seeks to support a free, democratic Iran and will align all of its actions in the region around that ultimate goal.
The range and depth of what the United States can do against the regime is large and far beyond the confines of this essay. Patience and perseverance and a willingness to use force, however, are required. Still, despite the president’s dim view of the nuclear agreement and the Islamic Republic, the odds are decent that Trump will follow the footsteps of President Obama: The Great American Retreat will continue. Obama’s most important legacy likely will survive.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.