Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron came to Washington to lobby Donald Trump to break his promise to undo Barack Obama’s “Iran deal.” A few days later, Europe’s biggest figure, Germany’s Angela Merkel, came to town for the same purpose. Trump’s tendency to bend to the latest pressure being no secret, it was also no surprise that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a dramatic speech, citing chapter and verse about Iran’s nuclear program, intended to pull Trump back to his campaign promise: His “No. 1 priority” as president would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
Netanyahu’s speech—cast as it was in terms of promises made and broken regarding military security, as opposed to the commercial interests that Merkel and Macron had brought to bear—seems to have had its intended effect. Trump said that Netanyahu’s details proved that he, Trump, had been “100 percent right” about “the deal,” and that withdrawing from it would “send the right message” to North Korea and others.
Netanyahu’s critics did not challenge his contention that the details came from very recent acquisitions of Israeli intelligence. There is no way of knowing the truth of that. More important, they could not dispute the accuracy of those details. The U.S. government confirmed that Iran’s nuclear program continues. Their main rejoinder is that Iran’s nuclear weapons program—which contradicts official contentions that it does not exist—is an old story. No less true for being old.
I doubt anybody is surprised that “the deal” did not pause or slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, never mind stop it. Neither can anyone be surprised that the program kept the same director and personnel, and merely changed names as well as (some) venues. Not a few of the deal’s supporters state now that, as in 2015, the program’s strength “vindicates the need” for it.
In short, Netanyahu’s speech brought us back to square one. What should have been done then? What is to be done now?
The Scope of Iran’s Threat
Reading Netanyahu’s description leads specialists to ask for even more details. Yes, the Iranians are working on the metallurgy and the hemispheric conventional explosives essential to detonate U-235. OK. Of what size are the prototypes? That would tell us something about the throw weight that Iranian missiles would have to produce to loft these weapons to any given range.
But such concerns on our part are a kind of voyeurism. Intelligence, by contrast, is information that you can do something with, or about. We already have that. The key fact is: sooner or later—it makes little difference which—Iran will be able to deliver nukes anywhere on the planet. Now what?
At least partially because of the deal, now even more than in 2015, Iran is leading one side of the perpetual Sunni-Shia war. In so doing, it imperils the world’s energy traffic. Through its proxies, Iran also threatens a war with Israel that would involve us. But it is doing so on an economic, social, and political razor’s edge, as well as in the face of a demographic implosion.
In such situations, the beginning of wisdom is to stop making matters worse for ourselves. “The deal” enriched Iran with cash and gave it new lifelines of trade. The cash is gone. But by exiting “the deal” and imposing secondary sanctions (no trade with whoever trades with Iran) the United States can destroy those lifelines, and more. We should.
Tehran Has Major Problems
The Islamic Republic’s foreign ventures and military programs are increasingly unpopular at home. Its economic policies and the corruption by which they are administered, as well as its disastrous management of Iran’s scarce water supplies, have further impoverished a poor population. The ruling Mullahs’ hypocrisy has deprived them of the people’s respect. This is not a people eager, or even able, to bear hardship to support their regime’s nuclear weapons program. Note that the regime has never admitted to its people that it is aiming at such weapons.
Nevertheless, the notion that “regime change” in Iran should be U.S. government policy is deeply mistaken. The Iranian people’s choice of regimes is rightly, and exclusively, their own. Moreover, nothing would work against any revolutionary movement more surely than being identified with the country that is inflicting economic privation on the entire country. And economic privation—big-time privation of the unendurable kind—is what U.S. secondary sanctions would inflict on Iran.
Secondary sanctions also would be cruel enough to reach the regime’s enforcers. The Iranian people would know why they are suffering: because their regime has been making war, and that it has been doing that from the very beginning. They are sick of war, and of their regime. No outsiders would have to tell Iranians to choose between war and peace.
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).