It wouldn’t seem hard for anyone remotely interested in the fate of the planet to draw at least one clear lesson from last Saturday’s Iranian strikes on Saudi Arabia: There is no way that the regime that casually took 50% of Saudi oil production offline can ever be allowed to get anywhere near possessing a nuclear bomb. Imagine what a nuclear-armed Iran might do to the oil production on which the entire planet depends for energy, transportation, and food. Does anyone really care to wager that an Iranian regime that had such devastating weapons wouldn’t actually use them? That seems like a bad bet.
And yet that was precisely how a highly visible segment of political partisans in Washington has chosen to see things. The oil fields were still burning as former Barack Obama aides, Democratic Party officials, political operatives, and journalists rolled out an arsenal of tweets, quotes, and op-eds laying down cover for a military attack targeting the world’s oil supply. In a different time, the idea of a public campaign to cheer on an operation whose intended effect was to raise oil prices and terrorize a traditional US ally might seem like a deranged PR stunt by campus nihilists. But in DC’s toxic new zero-sum political game, an attack on Saudi Arabia is good news— not because it benefits America or Americans in any conceivable way, but because it benefits Iran. Same difference, right?
The public conjoining of US and Iranian interests represents the fulfillment of Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The purpose of the JCPOA was to bribe the Iranians to hold off on building a bomb until Obama left office by legitimizing a future Iranian bomb while filling the regime’s coffers with hundreds of billions of dollars. The effect of the deal was to arm and fund the country that Obama saw as America’s new ally in the region.
Right or wrong, Obama believed this was in the American interest. Minimizing the US footprint in the region required partnership with a power that could bear the load after America’s exit. From Obama’s perspective, that power could only be Iran: Saudi Arabia was not a military power, Iraq was a mess, Egypt was politically unstable, and Israel was a non-starter. So he tabbed Iran as the curator of US regional interests, even though its elevated standing came at the expense of traditional US allies. This is what Obama meant by regional “balance.”
In the Middle East, the JCPOA realigned American interests with those of the Islamic Republic. At home, it aligned supporters of Obama’s foreign policy with diplomats, agents and propagandists for the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose job was to promote rapprochement. The result was the merging of these two interest groups, one domestic and one foreign, into a new vertical: Team Iran.
Team Iran’s ability to identify its opponent as Donald Trump no doubt contributes to its power in Washington: If you are against Iran, then you are with Trump. Yet why get in bed with Iran if your goal is to extricate yourself from the region—a goal that both Trump and Obama in fact share? The idea that Iran is devoted to undermining U.S. power in the region was a noncontroversial mainstay of U.S. government analysis that was widely shared by Obama’s first-term foreign policy team of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and CIA chief and later Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—and is helpfully emphasized by the “Death to America” chants that are a mainstay of Iranian government rallies and other events.
So how do we describe the forces arrayed against Team Iran? You can’t really call it Team Saudi or Team Israel. As Obama correctly observed, both lack the ambition and ability to muster a large supporting cast. Iran, by contrast, has managed to galvanize a large constituency throughout the region and further abroad by employing violence and coloring it with a relatively coherent ideology: “resistance.”
What’s opposing Team Iran is simply the status quo, the mundane baseline of US Middle East policy for eight decades across Republican as well as Democratic administrations. In that order, Saudi Arabia and Israel are parts of a US-sponsored security structure that also includes traditional US allies like Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and even Turkey. To lock in realignment, Team Iran has targeted the components of the traditional U.S. order of the region—while turning U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East into an extension of partisan American politics.
For his part, Trump has defended the traditional American alliance system for traditional American reasons, based on a combination of foreign policy realism and idealism.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, is an ally for realist reasons. The US-Saudi partnership is short on sentiment but long on national, especially economic, interest. The Saudis are important, as Trump explained last year last year, because they spend money on American goods, including arms, which keeps Americans at work.
U.S. support for Israel is based on both realism and idealism. Israel, a democracy, shares similar values with America. Further, as the strongest military and economic power in the region, with a highly advanced technology sector and acute intelligence capabilities, Israel has plenty to offer the U.S.
In recent Tablet articles, I’ve described the outlines of Trump’s Iran policy and the different challenges shaping it. In particular, Trump has to balance the two different, and largely irreconcilable, parts of his base: traditionally hawkish Republicans on the one hand, and on the other an isolationist wing rightly critical of America’s strategically pointless and inordinately expensive military commitments in the Middle East.
In this piece, though, I want to assess the other side. While the president’s apparently maximalist Iran policy—no nukes ever—requires the time and leverage earned through re-election, Team Iran’s strategy is premised on the belief that Trump will be gone by 2020. Previously, American interlocutors like former Secretary of State John Kerry counseled their Iranian counterparts to be patient. Last week’s attacks suggest Tehran believes it can force the issue by putting Trump in front of a series of hard choices.
Team Iran wants Trump to relieve sanctions on Iran, and/or green-light the French initiative extending Tehran a $15 billion line of credit, which would likely unravel sanctions. The additional benefit of sanctions relief, as Team Iran sees it, is that it will create problems for Trump with his hawkish base. Or, Trump can risk further escalation, which entails another choice—either war or an economic downturn due to instability in the oil market, both of which are likely to hurt his re-election chances. It’s not exactly a “maximum pressure” campaign on Trump, but it’s heading that way.
Just as Trump has outsourced military operations against Iranian proxies to Israel, Iran has also moved a major component of its Trump policy offshore, to politics. This component comprises official European diplomacy as well as US freelancing, like Kerry’s meetings with Iranian and European officials. The most delicate feature of the political component, however, is propaganda—information operations managed by US political operatives with an eye on Team Iran’s two target audiences: American voters, and US allies.
The susceptibility of these audiences to disinformation thanks to their own biases, including their unbridled hatred for Trump, is accentuated by Trump’s difficulty in communicating clearly even with his own supporters. While part of that difficulty is caused by the swirling clouds of political disinformation spread by a hostile press, it is also the result of Trump’s own style, which is part calculated and part chaotic. The facility with which Trump appears to entertain a variety of positions—maybe he’s open to meeting with the Iranians, maybe he’s ok with the French initiative, etc—in order to win his maximalist version of the deal might be a sound negotiating tactic, but it also leaves room for Team Iran to inject its own messaging to confuse the target audiences.
Team Iran propaganda typically manipulates the language of democracy, liberalism, and human rights to drive up negatives for traditional US allies and make Iran look at least ok by comparison, even while it works on behalf of a terror-sponsoring theocracy that stuffs hundreds of thousands of its own citizens into dungeons and torture chambers for speech and thought-crimes.
Take last year, when Team Iran saw the murder of longtime Saudi intelligence officer Jamal Khashoggi by other Saudi intelligence officers as an opportunity to destroy the US-Saudi alliance. A Team Iran information operation alleged that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible for killing Khashoggi, who was incorrectly portrayed as a dissident journalist and a US green-card holder—while obscuring his intelligence role—effectively pressuring Trump into distancing himself from Riyadh. The goal was to impose realignment on Obama’s successor, whether he liked it or not.
Israel is also vulnerable to information warfare coordinated by political operatives and delivered by a pliant press. Last week’s anonymously sourced report claiming that Israel was spying on Trump and his inner circle was utter nonsense, but it was also part of an ongoing campaign to sow distrust between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A long Washington Post essay by Robert Kagan smeared Netanyahu, contending that under his leadership Israel is succumbing to authoritarian tendencies. Moreover, wrote the former neoconservative, Israel is not really a US ally. “It has launched attacks against Iranian allies in Syria and Iraq only when its own interests have been directly threatened,” wrote Kagan. “This might be entirely justified, but it does not make Israel an asset to the United States.” Besides, Kagan offhandedly suggests, “Iran poses little direct threat to the United States.”
In addition to showing Iran’s plan for unseating Trump, Saturday’s attacks also fully exposed the anatomy of its domestic operatives on Team Iran. First, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels immediately claimed responsibility for the operation. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was no evidence the attacks had come from Yemen, Democratic officials scrambled to lay down cover for Iran by backing the Houthis story.
“The Houthis are not the same as Iran and the Saudis are fighting a war against them in Yemen,” tweeted former Obama deputy Ben Rhodes. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut took to social media to disseminate talking points, “so you have some knowledge to counter this claim that America needs to bomb Iran because the Houthis bombed Saudi Arabia,” tweeted Murphy.
“Maybe the Huthis [sic] are behind it,” tweeted Obama’s one-time anti-ISIS czar Robert Malley. “Or maybe Iran is behind it, as @SecPompeo alleges. The lesson in either case is the same.” That is: Leaving the JCPOA was a failure and only re-engagement—i.e. paying Iran to negotiate, as Obama did—can de-escalate tensions.
There’s little dissent among Democrats about realignment. As far as they are concerned, the traditional American alliance structure in the region is now their enemy. “Saudi Arabia,” Rhodes tweeted Tuesday night, “is not an ally of the United States.”
As the most recent Democratic Presidential candidate debates clearly showed, restoring the JCPOA has become an article of faith within the party on a par with gun control and the righteousness of late-term abortions. The Iran Deal is part of the Democratic political catechism—an article of faith.
The problem for Team Iran is that no one can explain how an alliance with Iran is actually good for America.
To take only the most recent example, Saturday’s attacks by Iran led, briefly, to the highest surge in oil prices in over a decade. To the extent that further escalation from the Iranians threatens Trump’s electoral chances, that’s because it will hurt Americans. And why do the Iranians want to cause Americans pain? To coerce Trump into providing them with financial resources to wage war on American allies. Think that through for a moment the next time you hear Team Iran cheering.
Realignment is a geopolitical protection racket. That’s why Trump says the Iran deal was a catastrophe. It was good for Obama—it kept Iran from getting a bomb on his watch. But the JCPOA did nothing good for America, or the regional allies who are good for America, or for American values. The Islamic Republic is not even capable of doing good for its own people. Instead of feeding Iranians, the clerical regime used its post-nuclear deal cash windfall to spearhead a campaign of sectarian slaughter in Syria.
There is no hard-nosed case for strategic reason for realignment either, because Obama was wrong in his most fundamental calculation: Iran can’t carry the load. IT is the theocratic state of a regional minority twice over, Persian and Shiite, whose exterminationist campaigns against Sunnis have rendered it incapable of projecting influence in a Sunni-majority Middle East. Iran wages asymmetrical war through proxies because it has very limited military capabilities of its own. Even with the hundreds of billions that came to Iran after the JCPOA, Iran needed Russian support to put down Syrian rebel forces.
Even the most elementary premise of realignment is illogical. It means overturning the existing US alliance system of pro-American states in the Middle East in favor of embracing a genocidal regime that at its core is virulently anti-American.
Something has to give. For Trump, that’s Iran. For Team Iran, that’s us.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).