What’s the alternative to Trump on Iran?

January 19, 2020 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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After months of focusing on domestic policy and their animus for President Donald Trump, this week the Democratic Party presidential candidates turned their attention towards foreign policy.

Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS

Security issues have moved to the top of the agenda due to Trump’s willingness to challenge Iran. Trump’s decision to have U.S. forces kill Iranian terror chief Qassem Soleimani has, for the moment, diverted Americans from economics and also engendered fears about the possibility of the targeted killing launching World War III among some on the left. But by the time the six contenders who qualified addressed viewers on stage in Des Moines, Iowa, for their seventh debate, the Democrats’ attempt to hype a war scare had already faded.

There were some fireworks in which Sen. Bernie Sanders attempt to relitigate the vote to authorize the Iraq war in 2003 in order to attack former Vice President Joe Biden. But the attempt by the CNN moderators to determine how exactly the six Democrats would deal with Iran didn’t inspire much confidence in their capacity to present a coherent alternative to Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamist regime.

After absorbing the stunning loss of Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Tehran regime backed down after contenting itself with a symbolic missile attack on two U.S. bases in Iraq that caused no casualties. That meant that Trump had proven once again that the conventional wisdom of the foreign-policy establishment that had long guided the policies of both Republican and Democratic predecessors was wrong.

The belief that Iran would burn down the region if the United States sent them a powerful message about terror was mistaken. Trump has showed the regime that it will pay a high price if it doesn’t cease terrorist provocations, such as those orchestrated by Soleimani, who had the blood of hundreds of Americans and countless others on his hands. Even more to the point, the notion that Iran could credibly threaten a war or even a major escalation of hostilities against the United States was a gigantic bluff that fooled both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but apparently not a foreign-policy novice like Trump.

Less reported but no less important are the recent developments on the nuclear front. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of economic sanctions has placed tremendous pressure on Tehran. In response, Iran has threatened to start enriching uranium again—in excess of the amounts the nuclear pact permits—that could be used to build a bomb. But rather than having the intended effect of getting panicked Europeans to defy U.S. sanctions, the opposite has happened.

Though the Germans, French and British would prefer to go on trading with Iran and pretending that the nuclear deal is working, they simply can’t continue along that route. Reluctantly, they have begun the process that can lead to their joining America in reimposing sanctions, completing Tehran’s isolation and tightening the noose around its economy.

The Democrats have interpreted Iran’s actions as proving that Trump’s withdrawal from the deal was a disaster since all of them erroneously claim that it was working to prevent a nuclear bomb. But they all fail to mention that leaving Iran’s advanced nuclear infrastructure in place and putting sunset clauses into the pact only ensured that it would eventually get a bomb anyway.

Every one of the Democratic candidates says they would reinstate the deal as soon as they take office. But anyone who is serious about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as they all claim to be, must demand that it be renegotiated. Lifting sanctions will make that impossible since it will remove the leverage Trump has obtained for the West. Pledging allegiance to Obama’s deal is good politics for a Democrat, but not a strategy for dealing with the mess he left the country concerning Iran.

The regime’s economy is failing, and the resulting unrest it has generated inspired the people of Iran to increasingly take to the streets to protest against the corrupt rule of the ayatollahs and their IRGC henchmen. In November, Soleimani’s troops gunned down hundreds of demonstrators. But that act of mass murder hasn’t deterred a new round of protests in the wake of the regime’s shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet.

When asked about Iran, not a single Democratic candidate spoke up to praise the courage of the protesters, who want freedom from Islamist oppression. And while Trump has used his bully pulpit on Twitter to speak out against the IRGC’s atrocities against Iranian civilians, the total of tweets on the subject from the Democrats candidates was exactly zero.

The Democratic candidates all say that the killing of Soleimani was a reckless provocation, even if they agree he was a terrorist. What would they do to restrain Iran’s terror? The only answers they have involve talk about diplomacy and avoiding another war like the one fought in Iraq, which almost all Americans now agree was a blunder. But what Trump has proved with his sanctions and targeted killing of Soleimani is that it’s possible to call Iran’s bluff without starting a war.

Resuming Obama’s appeasement policy, avoiding military conflict at all costs and saying that everything Trump does is wrong may be effective talking points for persuading Democratic primary voters. Yet they are a poor substitute for a strategy aimed at rolling back the gains Iran made after it was enriched and empowered by the nuclear deal or actually stopping the regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon sooner or later.

Many voters care about the threat Iran poses to the West, the Middle East and to Israel, and are eager to vote against the president in November. But judging by the answers heard on the debate stage in Iowa, none of the Democrats seeking the chance to oppose Trump have a clear idea about what to do about the issue.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS— Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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