Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman spoke on December 4 with Jonathan S. Tobin, editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) and a contributing writer for National Review, who called in a recent op-ed for the Trump administration to exploit a "historic moment of Iranian weakness" by ramping up pressure on its Islamist regime.
Tobin emphasized that recent waves of protests in Iran "are a greater threat to the regime than it has faced in the last forty years of its existence," judging from the amount of violence needed to suppress them. This puts Iran at an inflection point similar to that during the Obama administration when "international sanctions ... put it in a very difficult place." Unfortunately, at that time Iran's ruling mullahs were "rescued by the weakness of the Obama administration and its willingness to make a ... nuclear deal with them at any price."
For starters, the Trump administration should further ramp up economic pressure on the regime. "As draconian as the sanctions have been for Iran up until now, they can get worse. The United States can seek to embargo all oil sales from Iran," says Tobin. "Trump hasn't gone quite all the way to really strangle the Iranian economy."
Secondly, the Trump administration must take European countries to task for their continuing, if largely ineffective, attempts to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran via INSTEX, a bartering mechanism established at the beginning of the year to enable trade outside the U.S. financial system. Iran "is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism and the Europeans are looking to keep a lifeline and the money flow to the terrorists."
Finding a way to "slap the Iranians down without escalating" is no easy task.
Thirdly, the Trump administration must respond more forcefully to Iranian provocations, such as attacks on oil tankers. However, he acknowledges that finding a way to "slap the Iranians down without escalating ... into a conflagration that the United States can't control" is no easy task.
According to Tobin, Iran's extraordinary provocations over the past nine months are not a reflection of regime confidence, but rather are efforts to "distract everyone from the fact that it cannot withstand the pressures" of tightening sanctions. The Trump administration understands this – that "the more extreme the Iranians get, it shows that this policy is working," but "has erred too much on the idea of 'these are just bluffs, let's not play into their hands.'"
"This is an administration whose foreign policy has always been a mixed bag. It's always been engulfed in deeply contradictory impulses, which are embodied by the president's own beliefs," said Tobin. He continued:
[Trump's] desire to withdraw from the Middle East ... has always been at odds with his instinctive distrust and hostility toward the Iranian regime and his willingness to brave the brickbats he's gotten for reversing Obama's nuclear deal. These two policies don't fit together. His brain, love him or hate him, has always allowed contradictory impulses to reside rather comfortably next to each other. His policy in northern Syria, his softness toward Turkey doesn't really mix well with other elements of this administration's very strong, very commendable foreign policy initiatives.
"Iran can't help being what it is."
At the end of the day, however, contradictory impulses within the administration have tended to get ironed out by the "vital" presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and they "do[n't] gainsay the fact that on Iran, the United States has consistently tended to do the right thing."
Asked if the ultimate goal of U.S. pressure on Iran should be regime change or a deal, Tobin argued that it doesn't really matter so long as the administration continues ramping up the pressure:
Our end goal should be to change that regime; I think that's what the Iranian people want. ... [But] there's nothing wrong about Trump ... or even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying, "If you want to act like a normal country, we're willing to deal with [you] as a normal country." But the definition has to be ... stop supporting terrorism, stop building illegal missiles, stop threatening to destroy Israel, stop doing all the things that make you the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the end it's a circular argument. Iran can't help being what it is. ... [W]hether we say our goal is a better deal ... it's always going to go back to "change the regime" because that regime is not capable of being normal.
The Obama administration outwardly framed its pursuit of a deal with the Iranians in this fashion – as something that would lead Iran to "get right with the world," Tobin remarked, though in actuality nothing of the sort happened. "They took all the money that they got from the deal and plowed it right back into all the same rogue-regime mischief-making that they had been doing all along."