President Trump has revived most of the U.S. sanctions on Iran that were dropped during Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. More sanctions are coming. But to halt Iran’s march toward enriched uranium and functional ballistic missiles for good, the White House must convince more Americans and U.S. allies to join in raising pressure on the regime. The fruits of Tehran’s imperialism won’t wither until the world chokes its roots.
Looming in the background of the Trump administration’s efforts is the 2020 election, after which a Democratic president could reverse Mr. Trump’s progress. Democrats’ views on Iran are still shaped by Mr. Obama’s approach to the nuclear deal. They continue to play down Tehran’s regional aggression and especially its role in the slaughter in Syria and Yemen, and they have recast President Hassan Rouhani as a reformer despite his role as an enforcer of the mullahs’ police state. “Engaging” Tehran, restoring the nuclear deal, and reducing America’s presence in the Middle East are a gospel for progressive Democrats, who loathe Mr. Trump and aren’t enamored of Israel, Sunni Arabs or the region’s machtpolitik.
In contrast, President Trump’s sanctions-centered policy deprives Tehran of billions in hard currency each year and impedes its strategic ambitions. Yet it’s unlikely that the Trump administration’s ultimate goal, be it a new nuclear agreement or the theocracy’s collapse, can be achieved in the next two years. The Iranian regime is tenacious. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is probably the most accomplished modern Middle Eastern dictator. Many of the mullahs and Revolutionary Guardsmen who rule it lived through the horrific Iran-Iraq War. They are far more brutal than the shah and his generals before the revolution.
Protests by the poor and middle class have unsettled the regime since last December, but Mr. Khamenei knows how to manage dissent. As long as the protests don’t boil over into massive disorder, they might actually help the regime by allowing public outrage to vent and revealing to the security services potential leaders of a larger insurrection.
Without a more aggressive play by the U.S., this regime is unlikely to fold on its ambitions. The mullahs have thrown billions of dollars at the development of nuclear weapons in good times and bad. Even if sanctions reduce the regime’s oil sales to fewer than a million barrels a day, the earnings will be enough to keep the regime’s security services loyal absent a massive popular revolt.
Even the fear of a possible military attack hasn’t moved Iran to halt its nuclear program. According to nuclear-weapons experts David Albright and Olli Heinonen, who have reviewed Iranian archives captured in 2016 by Israeli intelligence, Tehran didn’t freeze its nuclear program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as American intelligence asserted with “high confidence” in 2007 and Obama officials continuously regurgitated. Today’s sanctions can’t possibly match the fear that George W. Bush provoked in Tehran when American tanks raced toward Baghdad. And the development of advanced centrifuges is cheaper than it used to be. Mr. Heinonen believes Iran likely has significant undeclared stockpiles of the required materiel.
One of the most troubling aspects of Mr. Obama’s agreement was the lack of access to Iran’s nuclear personnel, files and suspicious sites. This blind spot persists today without an agreement. The clerical regime could still be developing nuclear technology and the Central Intelligence Agency likely wouldn’t know.
The picture isn’t much prettier across the region. Iran controls vast territory through its proxies in Iraq and Syria. The war in Yemen also is an exceptionally good deal for the regime, with minimal expenditures and high returns in the form of pressure on rival Saudi Arabia. Iran’s battle-tested Shiite foreign legions do entail costs. But after 40 years of cash and materiel shortages, the regime has learned how to wage imperialism on the cheap.
The Trump administration has weakened its leverage by appearing unwilling to counter Iran’s advances with military pressure. Washington largely has left Israel with the responsibility for containing the Revolutionary Guard. Fear of Sunni jihadists and Iranian reprisals—as well as the lack of congressional authorization for lethal covert action—has frustrated ambitions for a U.S. campaign to bleed the Shiite empire through low-cost guerrillas. The U.S. won’t do to Iran what Iran did to American troops in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis simply can’t handle such a task without American help.
The administration needs to play a longer game. The U.S. should increase and sustain pressure long enough for Iran’s massive internal contradictions to crack the theocracy. A renewed bipartisan consensus about the clerical regime’s wickedness is an essential condition, ensuring the effort is sustained into the next presidency. The administration must also persist in its effort to unite the developed world against Iran’s aggression.
To debunk the Obama narrative of Iran, the Trump administration should highlight more vividly the regime’s savagery abroad and brutality at home. The Democratic Party and Western European countries are likely to resist as long as Mr. Trump is president, but there’s no harm in trying. It will be hard for progressives to trash a foreign policy built explicitly on advancing human rights and democracy once the crimes of Mr. Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are fully exposed. The regime’s proclivity to assassinate expatriate dissidents—which crescendoed in the 1990s when President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his fixer, Mr. Rouhani, were in power—is growing again.
The nuclear deal’s restrictions on sales to Iran of conventional weapons and ballistic-missile technology will sunset in 2020 and 2023, respectively. Democrats and Europeans should recognize the potential dangers and inject more muscle and conscience into their foreign policies.
Mr. Trump and many Republicans have been reluctant to promote democracy and civil society overseas. They would be wise to overcome this hesitation and play every card they have against the regime to build the broader base of support, at home and abroad. The clock is ticking.