Since 1979 the United States and Iran have been at loggerheads. The seizure of the United States embassy by Iranian and imprisonment of its staff for over a year has neither been forgotten nor forgiven. It remains particularly galling as our attempt to rescue them ended in catastrophic disaster.
For Iran the United States was/is/and will remain “the Great Satan.” We earned this sobriquet by given shelter to the dying Shah, supporting Iraq in their bloody war (where we tacitly hoped it would last indefinitely), and labeling them a gross violator of human rights in the State Department’s annual human rights report.
Over the decades, Iran has well deserved opprobrium. Tehran has supported and funded terrorist groups (Hamas), backed rebels in Yemen against Saudi/Coalition forces fighting under the UN mandate to restore the legitimate government. And that is not to mention its domestic actions that if they haven’t violated a human right, they haven’t thought of it.
It is also not irrelevant that Tehran’s animus against Israel verges on the maniacal. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply says “Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor … that has to be removed and eradicated. It is possible and it will happen,”
And that Is the Crux of the Problem
Observers tend to forget that even under the Shah, Tehran sought to develop plans and obtain preliminary material for a nuclear weapons program. Washington through export control procedures sought to thwart Tehran—while Europeans happily sold them nuclear-related material.
The consequence of Iran’s increasing military capabilities (combined with its extant and increasingly credible threats against Israel) led to a “something must be done” conclusion to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Tel Aviv had made it clear that such would be intolerable.
The agonizingly difficult and contentious negotiations conducted by Germany and the five permanent UN Security Council produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) designed inter alia to eliminate significant numbers of centrifuges, decrease uranium enrichment, and stop construction of a heavy water facility. Although embraced by the arms control community, it was excoriated by skeptics who insisted that it would only delay the Iranian inevitability briefly, that the Iranians would cheat, and the threat would resume in more virulent form sooner rather than later.
Hence, with the election a new administration, the groundwork was laid for the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA—which it did in May 2018 calling for other states to follow its lead. (EU states, however, acted to prevent application of U.S. sanctions—which were put into effect in November 2018.)
The IAEA declared in February 2019 that Tehran was still in compliance with the JCPOA, however, on May 8 Iran indicated that it would halt compliance with selected elements of the Agreement.
Subsequent to and/or concurrently with Tehran’s “signal” has been the ratchetting up of military action to include:
- Dispatch of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its battle group, plus bombers, to the ME/Persian Gulf reportedly in response to intelligence to the effect that some Iranian ships were being armed with missiles that could strike U.S. “assets” in the region. In response, the United States evacuated most personnel from Embassy Baghdad. One can only hope that the “intelligence” we should have mistrusted in recent years has improved;
- A medley of attacks attributed to Iranian-funded or organized forces, ranging from drone attacks apparently directed at a key Saudi oil pipeline and an attack on four tankers in the export-vital Strait of Hormus.
If hostilities begin in earnest, one can imagine the Gulf becoming a killing zone with the Lincoln and its 5,000-crew burning from stem-to-stern after drone and missile attacks. The Lincoln and its escorts shot down 95 percent of attackers—but not enough.
So What Are Options?
- “Surgical” U.S. strikes in retaliation as urged by a Saudi newspaper;
- Let Israel handle the problem; they have destroyed previous reactors in past actions against Iraq and Syria. They know how to destroy reactors—we can “hold their coat” while they resolve an existential problem;
- Continue force buildup while creating another “Coalition of the Willing” a la This objective would be regime change for one of the more odious regimes of the 20th–21st centuries;
- Take at their words the statements by the president and Iranian leadership that they don’t want war and are willing to restrain their more pugnacious elements. But always remember Tehran’s reputation for mendacity and the “plausible deniability” enjoyed by semi-independent militia units.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.