February 25, 2022 | Washington Examiner

Republicans need an Iran policy

February 25, 2022 | Washington Examiner

Republicans need an Iran policy

Republican critics of President Joe Biden’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran see a constantly caving White House refusing to maintain severe sanctions and a credible military threat.

If Washington were tougher, they argue, it would have vastly better leverage and the possibility of a serious atomic accord. Tehran’s nuclear advance under President Donald Trump, the killer of Iran’s dark lord, Qassem Soleimani, was much less than what has happened since January 2021. Trump scared the regime almost as much as he did Democrats.

But as right as Republicans may be about the deficiencies of President Barack Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, and Biden’s efforts to resuscitate it in Vienna, their approach today is largely reactive.

Republicans may soon have both chambers in Congress. 2024 is round the corner. Although the Democratic Party’s approach to Iran has been neither brave nor farsighted nor perceptive, it has at least been somewhat coherent: trade cash and commerce in return for time and the possibility that the clerical regime will evolve while America “pivots” somewhere else. Although even hawkish Republicans are loath to admit it, Obama didn’t completely miscast the choice when he was trying to sell his 2015 nuclear agreement to the American people. He offered one choice: his deal or war.

The actual options: Iran gets the nuke but America tries to deter and contain its ambitions. Or America essentially gives up (Iran becomes Israel’s problem, not ours). Or America ramps up sanctions, tries to obtain a “good deal,” or induces a nuke-stopping, popular insurrection. Or, politically the least appealing choice, America goes to war to prevent the Islamic Revolutionary Guards from becoming custodians of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Trump chose a stop-the-nuke sanctions strategy, which should have changed when it became obvious two years ago that Tehran had stockpiled — or figured out how to import outside of sanctions — high-tech, nuclear-related components and a lot of maraging steel. The clerical regime clearly has the skill set and matériel to construct hundreds of high-speed centrifuges that can produce weapons-grade uranium rapidly.

True, popular insurrection might crash the theocracy. Still, after the savage crackdown on nationwide protests in 2019, it seems unlikely that internal revolt could preempt the development of a nuclear weapon.

Before January 2021, anti-deal Republicans who believe an Iranian nuke is simply unacceptable should have been encouraging Trump to bomb Iran’s program. That was the only approach that offered any chance of restraining Tehran’s ambitions. Arms control always had a negligible chance of success with an oil-rich, exuberantly mendacious, revolutionary Islamic state. Regrettably, the rhetoric that most conservatives have used to describe the clerical regime’s menace and its decades-old nuclear perseverance doesn’t gel well with a state that was supposedly going to buckle from sanctions or conclude a regime-saving, comprehensive accord with the Great Satan.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has a nuclear infrastructure that is essentially bomb-ready. Whether or not Israeli officials who estimate that the Islamic Republic needs another 18 to 24 months to produce a nuclear trigger are right, for Republicans, that consideration is politically irrelevant: Tehran could produce a nuke before 2025. Tougher sanctions now, perversely, could backfire. They could convince Khamenei to go for the bomb as quickly as possible. What would he have to lose if he thinks Washington won’t militarily strike?

Any likely deal with Tehran will surely leave the clerical regime in a position to produce highly-enriched uranium rapidly, giving Republicans little breathing space if they win back the presidency in 2024. Tehran could start advancing before the election if it believes a new president is willing to fight. Republicans need to adjust to Khamenei’s success.

Whatever Iran policy the GOP decides upon, the party should develop a strategy acknowledging that the clerical regime, deus ex machina aside, has probably won the nuclear race. Are Republicans prepared to back a containment/regime-change policy that would require a much more active America in the Middle East? Can Republicans and Democrats find common ground since partisanship can kill any long-term policy of containment and covert action? There are excellent reasons to maintain a sanctions wall against Tehran; all those reasons have to do with advancing regime change against a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. Yet sanctions have been the easy, all-purpose, political approach for Americans averse to conflict; they’ve allowed too much wishful thinking and preempted difficult, unpopular debates.

Of the three aggressive revisionist powers — China, Russia, and Iran — only the last has a regional counterweight. What America has declined to do, Israel still may. Are Republicans willing to support Israeli military action knowing that it could provoke a war that the U.S. might have to join? If not, Republican and Democratic differences over Iran are much less than their rhetoric suggests.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @ReuelMGerecht. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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