President Trump had tough words for the leaders of Iran on Friday, saying on “Fox & Friends” that they are responsible for explosions that heavily damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. Now the president needs to back up his words with action to send the revolutionary Islamist leaders in Tehran a message they won’t forget.
Iran’s radical regime will exploit American weakness, but it has a history of retreating when confronted by strength. If President Trump fails to make Iran pay a price for its terrorist attack on the tankers, Iran will be emboldened to launch even more attacks – not just on tankers, but elsewhere in the Middle East.
The U.S. does not need to strike Iran militarily at this time. But America needs to stand firm, using sanctions and other tools at our disposal and not taking the possibility of military action off the table.
Our strategy should focus on tightening the economic chokehold now weakening the Islamic Republic. We can keep pushing harder to cut off Iran’s oil exports as well as going after other kinds of exports. We can also put pressure on Syria, so Iran has to spend billions of dollars more to prop up the brutal pro-Tehran regime in Damascus in its civil war.
If and only if the radicals in Tehran recognize that their regime is on the brink of collapse will they come back to the table and negotiate a deal to dismantle their nuclear program and stop their terror attacks and aggression. Trying to appease Iran is a strategy doomed to failure.
Trump said on “Fox & Friends” that there is no doubt Iran is responsible for the attack on the tankers, citing a video released by the U.S. military showing an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers several hours after the first explosion.
The president warned Iran not to try to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for much of the world’s crude oil transported by sea.
“They’re not going to be closing it,” Trump said. “If it closes, it’s not going to be closed for long. And they know it.” That implies possible U.S. military action against Iran if it becomes necessary.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Iranian attack on the tankers is just the latest in a long series of aggressive and unprovoked military actions Iran has launched in the Middle East. Iran is waging an offensive across the region designed to undermine America and our Arab allies. And Iran has pledged to wipe Israel off the map and funds terrorist groups that attack the Jewish state to achieve that goal.
In May, four oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran. That led National Security Adviser John Bolton to say the attacks were “almost certainly carried out by Iran.”
It’s important to keep in mind that the Iranian attack on the tankers is just the latest in a long series of aggressive and unprovoked military actions Iran has launched in the Middle East.
Houthi rebels in Iran, who are backed and armed by Iran, fired a missile into an airport in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, injuring 26 people, according to the Saudis. And Houthis earlier attacked other targets in Saudi Arabia, including oil pipelines. Iran should not escape responsibility for these actions.
On top of this, Americans should never forget that Iran is responsible for the death of about 600 American troops during the war in Iraq. The attacks there followed a pattern, according to a comprehensive study of the war the U.S. Army released earlier this year.
Here’s the lesson we need to remember: When America avoided confronting Iran in Iraq, the Iranian attacks intensified, the Army study found. When our troops went on the offensive, Iran and its Iraqi proxies started pulling back.
This does not mean we need to take an eye for an eye and sink two Iranian ships. That would be fair, but there are smarter ways to hurt Iran.
When Ronald Reagan was president, he responded to similar attacks by sending the U.S. Navy to escort tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran decided to test whether the Navy meant business, which resulted in a defeat Iranian commanders still remember vividly. There is no need to rush to adopt the Reagan policy on escorts, but the American Navy should ramp up its presence in the Gulf to give Trump that option.
There are also other options short of military action available to the U.S. to send Iran a message that it needs to curb its terrorist attacks.
Just this week the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on an Iraqi front company that the department said “trafficked hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons” into Iraq on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The weapons were intended for Iranian-backed militias whose mission is to make the Iraqi government bend its knee to Iran, rather than putting the priorities of the Iraqi people first.
The one option that won’t work is for the U.S. to try to make concessions to Iran, hoping that if we are nicer to the Islamic Republic its leaders will be nicer to the U.S. and our allies.
Several of the Democratic candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have already pledged to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran, which would mean lifting a wide array of sanctions that are costing Tehran billions of dollars every month.
In response to the latest Iranian attacks, one of those candidates, Sen, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made clear that he is much more worried about Trump using the incident as a “pretext for war” than he is about letting Iran know that America won’t be intimidated.
Sanders and the rest should know better. Paying off terrorists just gives them a reason to launch more attacks. President Reagan learned this painful lesson when he traded arms to Iran for American hostages.
Our European allies have learned that lesson more recently. They are still strong supporters of the nuclear deal with Iran and want to reverse the American withdrawal from the agreement ordered by President Trump.
Yet the goodwill of the Europeans has not counted for much in Tehran. Iran has continued launching terrorist attacks in Europe, including assassinations in the Netherlands and a foiled effort to bomb a meeting of dissidents in France.
The bottom line is that the U.S. has not provoked Iranian attacks by withdrawing from the nuclear deal or anything else. Iran will launch terrorist attacks as long as it can get away with them.
The Trump administration’s broader strategy for dealing with Iran goes by the name of “maximum pressure.” It focuses on putting back in place the extremely tough sanctions that Iran had to face before the nuclear deal. Then it adds even tougher sanctions on top of that.
For example, the White House decided it wants to push Iranian oil exports down to zero, which would be a lethal blow to a country so dependent on that one resource.
Under President Barack Obama, Iran’s oil exports never fell much below 1 million barrels per day. Last year, before the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, those exports were running at about 2.4 million barrels per day. Last month, they plummeted to just 400,000.
It is no accident that Iran has been lashing out at tankers in the Gulf while the U.S. is pushing it to the edge of bankruptcy. America has outsmarted and overpowered Iran economically, so Iran is responding with violence.
Obama was impatient and afraid he could not get a good nuclear deal with Iran before leaving office, so he took a bad deal.
Trump has criticized that mistake again and again. He should not follow in the footsteps of President Obama. He needs to be patient and strong and make clear to Iran that it does not have a free hand to operate as a terrorist state.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter at @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.