Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman spoke on December 11 with Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly, about U.S. policy toward Iran.
Bryen, a staunch proponent of the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions on Iran, differs from many Iran hawks in her justifications for what the White House calls "maximum pressure" on Tehran. Unlike President Trump himself, she said it's "highly unlikely" that the sanctions will bring about Iran's capitulation to American demands that it abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its intervention in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
However, neither is she optimistic that the sanctions will bring down Iran's Islamist regime, at least not directly. "Sanctions are not a mechanism for toppling a government, but rather a means of forcing a government to make choices" as its financial resources shrink, said Bryen, in this case between "between funding revolution abroad and funding their own people."
The recent wave of mass protests both at home and among the subjects of Iran's proxy governments in Iraq and Lebanon has made it impossible for Tehran to find a balance between these priorities:
Iran has entered the phase of ... imperial overreach, [which] has taken down empires ... starting with the Romans and the Byzantines and the Egyptians and the Ottomans and the Nazis and everybody else. Iranian overreach means that they can't hold all the pieces of their empire together. They can't hold together Lebanon and Syria and the internal and the Houthis [in Yemen] and all the rest of this.
The Trump administration, she said, has found the best way to exploit this. It is taking "smart action" by increasing U.S. forces in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf, while avoiding a military conflict with Iran. Choosing not to respond to a series of violent provocations by Iran over the past is the better part of wisdom, she explained:
What [Iranian leaders] really would like is to provoke an American attack against them, so they can cry, 'We are the victim.' ... So, they poke and they poke and they poke. ... We don't want to give them the opportunity to say they are the ones who are the victims. We can tolerate this for the moment. We're bigger [and] we're stronger ... An occasional attack, a small drone attack, this is not a shutdown of shipping in the Persian Gulf. We now have 11 carrier groups ready to go. That's more than we've had in years.
Iran understood that America's goal under the Obama administration was to exit the region, and it expanded without fearing consequences. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has sent the message that "we are willing to defend the larger interests ... [it] has shown that on the big stuff, we are there, or we have the ability to be there."
If Iran doesn't get that message, "the United States and its allies in the region are going to have to decide when the time comes to retaliate and how to retaliate," said Bryen. But she is not calling for an invasion of Iran, or an attack on its nuclear enrichment facilities:
[What] we don't want is to do an attack that will hurt the Iranian people as a people. You know, people say of Israel, 'they can take out the Iranian nuclear facility[ies].' They can; so can we. Unfortunately, Fordo, the most important plant, is built under the city of Qom, which is a civilian city. I don't advocate dropping bombs on it. But it's not to say that we couldn't. You have to differentiate between what we could do and what we're likely to do.
According to Bryen, if the Trump administration wants to hit Iran where it would really hurt the regime, it should "take out Kharg Island," Iran's primary oil export facility.
"The Lebanese armed forces are an arm of ... the Hezbollah-dominated government."
In the meantime, continuing sanctions are forcing Iranian leaders to dial back their support of proxies. Already they have "reduce[d] by about two thirds their outlays to Hamas and reduce[d] enormously their outlays to Hezbollah."
The U.S. can tighten the squeeze on Hezbollah by ending American aid to the Lebanese army. She explained,
The Lebanese armed forces are an arm of ... the Hezbollah-dominated government of Lebanon. ... And if it's a war against Israel, the Lebanese armed forces are not going to take up arms and fire on Hezbollah. They're going to fire on Israel. So, what might have been true many ... years ago, that the Lebanese armed forces represented a non-sectarian piece of the country, they no longer do.
The U.S.-Israel relationship, in contrast, is vital according to Bryen:
Whatever we work on together, ... Israel shares America's fundamental goals, values, and operational policies. Israel is that ally that you can give American aid, you can give American training to, and by the way, they give us training as well in various areas. And know that when Israel goes to war, God forbid, the values that underlie that and the policies that underlie that, align with America's policies and requirements.
"You can't say that about Lebanon, you can't say it about Iraq, [and] you can't say it about Afghanistan, where we provide training for all kinds of people," she added. "You can say it [about] Israel."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.