The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was as much a domestic initiative as it was a foreign policy endeavor, as analysts such as Reza Marashi and Ariane Tabatabai have been saying. It’s a way for the Iranian leadership to come to terms with its own crimes and mistakes during the catastrophic presidency of Iran’s tin-pot clown, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By pursuing the nuclear deal and a normalized portfolio of relations with Europe and the United States, President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamanei sought to secure the revolution by preventing a repeat of the Ahmadinejad years and the return of the hard line.
Repetition appears to be an enduring condition of Iran-US relations. Late in 2003, with the war in Iraq just entering its insurgent stage, the refrain “boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran” gained circulation within neoconservative circles. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was to be the first step in a wider transformation. Plenty of men and women did go to Iraq, good Americans sent to fight in a bad war. They went in numbers not nearly enough to meet the need for the next war, if and when it should come to Iran.
Despite the Iraq debacle, the Trump administration is singing the same song. But post-JCPOA, with America’s options and allies greatly reduced, nothing short of a military draft will provide the manpower needed to bring about the type of regime change that the president and his advisers so eagerly want in Iran.
And yet change was already ongoing in Iran. Trump’s willful decision to exit from the nuclear agreement directly undermines the coalition led by Hassan Rouhani that had been slowly normalizing, even secularizing, the political scene after the chaos of the Ahmadinejad years. At the same time, the end of the JCPOA strengthens the hand of Rouhani’s hardline rivals, anti-democratic forces who happen to agree with the American president that the deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna was “the worst deal ever,” and for whom foreign conflict presents a welcome opportunity to renew the country’s flagging revolutionary spirit.
There is also growing evidence that Trump’s actions have hardened the hearts of ordinary Iranians. The expansion of punitive measures including sanctions against Iran, the population in the Middle East with some of the most positive feelings towards the United States, has moved majorities to defend what was otherwise a deeply unpopular political system. Pushed against the wall, Iranians across the ideological spectrum have rallied around the flag. War will only harden their defiance.
Selling a War
Whereas the Bush adventure in Iraq was a war of choice disguised as a battle for security, the Iran war will be largely sold as a tragedy in which the US had no choice. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address at the Heritage Foundation last month was the first step in that campaign. Having closed the door on the JCPOA, Pompeo nailed upon it a list of 12 impossible conditions for the elimination of sanctions against Iran that include giving inspectors unqualified access to all sites in Iran and an end to its ballistic missile program, non-starters for a government whose first priority is the preservation of its own sovereignty. Pompeo, who championed regime change in Tehran well before joining the administration and who in his previous role as CIA director testified before Congress that Iran had abided by the terms of the deal struck in Vienna, surely understood that his wish list represented a narrative for war.
Pompeo’s manifesto reflected the long-standing animus towards Iran of Trump and his current national security team, particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, whose.foreign policy views were too fringe for even the George W. Bush administration. Bolton has been a consistent, and well compensated voice, for regime change in Iran, undeterred by the likely costs in lives and treasure. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” proclaimed Bolton last July before a gathering of Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cultists, “And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!”
Standing in the way of a full rush to war is Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the only principal in the administration with actual skin in the game. Despite what Politico described in 2016 as a decades-long “grudge against Iran,” Mattis gained firsthand knowledge of Iranian operational capability, as well as the limitations of American power, during his tenure in Afghanistan and Iraq, experiences that have turned him into what passes as the voice of the reason within the administration. The former Marine general recognizes that, with the Pentagon already hamstrung by its forever wars in the Middle East, a shooting war with Iran would effectively mean the end of America’s all-volunteer force and quite possibly its position as the world’s sole superpower.
To its credit, the administration has distinguished itself from its Republican predecessor by not (yet) starting a new major conflict. It is more likely to stumble into calamity rather than charge into the storm as Bush did. War makes for poor simulacra, and it is unlikely that its management will be well served War makes for poor simulacra, and it is unlikely that its management will be well served by the Trump administration’s taste for performative displays of alpha-male toughness. If the British inherited their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness, Trump may yet lose America’s in a paroxysm of incompetence.
Boys Go to Baghdad…
My first encounter with the phrase came late in 2003 when, newly enrolled in graduate school, I gathered in the department lounge with a group of first-year students for an ad hoc session on foreign policy. With the Bush administration still mobilizing consent for America’s second go-around with Iraq, a very conservative, very well connected classmate shared with us what he was hearing from his friends inside the government. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was but the first step in a larger project, he said in a whisper, as if to make us accomplices in a tragic conspiracy. Iran would be next. “Boys go to Baghdad,” he intoned, “but men go to Tehran.”
That same classmate is now a tenured professor at a prominent liberal arts school on the East Coast, Bush is comfortably retired and ensconced in a Dallas suburb, and his vice-president is a regular consultant to conservative foreign policy forces.
Foreign policy emerges from the character and quality of a country’s domestic politics, no matter what the realists may say about security dilemmas and offshore balancing. America never came to terms with what it did in Iraq, or how it got itself there in the first place. Apart from a truly egregious bombing or murder in Baghdad, Americans hardly notice that U.S. forces are still there, 15 years later. Most Americans never had to answer for the war, the costs of battle borne by others. It may be that the next greatest U.S. failure will be to allow the sort of people who pulled the country into folly in 2003 to come back in 2018 to do the same elsewhere.