Are military options available for Trump to end Iranian nuclear threat?

Last week I debated an American intelligence officer regarding how the United States should respond to Iranian provocations.

Satellite image shows a nuclear facility in Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Satellite image shows a nuclear facility in Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week I debated an American intelligence officer regarding how the United States should respond to Iranian provocations. He believed that the US would be playing into Iran’s hands with any military response, harming the possibility of forging a united front to challenge Iran if it breaks the nuclear agreement. From this perspective, turning the other cheek to Iran’s aggressions allows the focus to remain exclusively on its nuclear aspirations.
No matter what happens between the United States and Iran this month – whether there is a conventional military response, another under-the-radar cyberattack, more sanctions, or no response at all – the only surety is that this will not to be the end of the confrontation but simply another, albeit dangerous, chapter in the 40-year clash of civilizations between America and the revolutionary Islamist movement.
President Trump avoided a military response to the recent attack, instead choosing increased sanctions, calling them “strong and proportionate.”
Although American diplomacy without a credible military threat plays well in Brussels, if America is perceived to be a paper tiger, ignoring attacks on American and allied interests, it greatly weakens the possibility that diplomacy will be successful here and elsewhere.
Iran thinks it has taken the measure of Trump with multiple attacks and no military response, and they may now believe they can continue to push America even further. North Korea is watching, and our allies wonder how reliable an ally America is anymore.
Waiting out this administration was the original Iranian plan, but the new sanctions are undermining its economy and the stability of the regime. The only question is when will the Iranian people mass by the millions into the streets again as they did in 2009.
According to James Phillips of the Heritage Institute, “Iran’s high-seas terrorism and intimidation tactics give European allies ample reason to reconsider their soft and naive approach to Iran policy, and to reunite with the US in seeking a more binding and long-lasting agreement to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon.”
It will be very hard to convince the Europeans to join, as they believe we would not be in the current situation if only the president had not withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal. The false narrative that everything was fine with Iran until Trump withdrew from the deal defies the evidence.
Europe has chosen to hide their eyes to all of Iran’s malevolent behavior committed after the JCPOA went into effect: its current terrorist activity in Europe, its destabilizing activity in the West Bank, its money laundering in South America, its ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, its entrenchment of its Shi’ite allies in the Iraqi military, and its support of terrorist entities Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Europeans have ignored all of this in addition to Iranian missile development, and its unrelenting support of terrorism.
But will Trump, in the quest for a new nuclear deal, follow Obama – who believed that you could separate Iran’s nuclear weapons program from its other malign activity? Let’s hope not. Iranian expansionism is creating a noose around Israel.
According to Avi Issacharoff writing in the Times of Israel, “In a reality once unthinkable, Assad’s troops along the Golan border are heeding commanders of the Iran-backed terror group [Hezbollah], and helping it prepare for conflict with the Jewish state,” while Seth Frantzman of The Jerusalem Post reported that “Tehran envisions joint military exercises and missile defense” between Iran and Iraq.
SO HOW to proceed? The Islamic threat of terrorism and intimidation works on Europe. Europe’s first impulse is to try and placate Iran. There is something hypocritical when Europeans condescend to Americans about their high-minded defense of human rights, then fight with all of their might to create a bartering system: INSTEX (the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran), to bypass American sanctions to help enrich the world’s leading terrorist state.
So here are some thoughts:
• Attacking Iranian interests doesn’t mean a path to war.
Thirty years ago, America attacked Iranian oil platforms during Operation Praying Mantis after Iranian mines hit an American frigate. More than 100 Iranians were killed and war did not follow.
• Don’t underestimate the power of American sanctions
After Trump withdrew from the Iran deal and re-imposed sanctions, the mainstream media said that without European support and with only American sanctions, there was no way to put significant pressure on Iran. Fast forward, and since the re-imposition of sanctions, Iran is plagued with worsening inflation, raging unemployment and, most importantly, a dissatisfied populace that wants change.
• Iran is vulnerable
It is much better to confront a weakened and vulnerable Iran than to placate the Iranians with hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that will only empower them to undermine American interests, and almost certainly force us back into another Middle Eastern confrontation, but not under our terms.
• America needs to get off Western time
We must learn in short order to have patience and not expect results in dealing with Iran. All of our adversaries, including Iran, know that America enters conflicts with one foot out the door before it even begins.
The simplest way forward would be for the Europeans to rejoin sanctions if Iran breaks its nuclear commitment. Just as important would be a combined Chinese, American and Indian flotilla, flagging tankers with their national flags to protect shipping in international waterways. Standing with Israel and Jordan against Iranian entrenchment in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq remains a vital American national security interest that cannot be bartered in a new nuclear agreement.
Whatever happens, remember that as long as this regime remains a revolutionary theocracy, it will not change its stripes. There should be no illusions about this. The best we can do if regime change is not on the table is containment. Iranian aggression will for sure come knocking again, and we will at some point need to choose how to respond, militarily or not.
The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network, who regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy advisers. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and i24TV International, and a contributor to The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.