Adam Ereli, 11 June 2019, UPI
June 11 (UPI) — Tensions between Iran and the United States appear to have eased — for the moment.
Despite the buildup of U.S. forces in the region, war has not broken out. Iran has retreated. It had moved missiles into Iraq and was planning to attack U.S. personnel and facilities there.
America’s show of force persuaded the mullahs in Tehran to pull back and prevented what could have been a wider conflict.
I believe the United States should have responded with force to Iran’s provocative bombing of Saudi Arabia’s oil pipeline and commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman. The only way to prevent Iran from repeating such attacks in the future is to make them pay a heavy price. If they bomb a Saudi pipeline, we should bomb an Iranian pipeline. If they attack an Emirati ship, we should attack an Iranian ship. An eye for an eye is the only language that Iran’s leaders understand.
Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump does not agree with me. Put simply, he is afraid that a conflict in the Arabian Gulf will cost him votes in the 2020 presidential election. He will order military strikes only if Iran leaves him no other choice by striking American targets. That is the red line.
So instead of military force, the United States is pursuing diplomacy. Trump says he wants to negotiate with Iran. During his visit to Japan in late May, he voiced support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s offer of mediation. Abe is scheduled to visit Tehran on Wednesday, the first time a Japanese head of government has done so since 1978 — one year before the revolution that brought the current Iranian regime to power.
During a period of four weeks in April and May, Trump held a hastily arranged meeting with the president of Switzerland in the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Switzerland for a meeting with that country’s foreign minister. Switzerland has often played the role of intermediary between the United States and Iran.
We have entered a new period of “no war and no peace.: The question is: What comes next?
Pompeo has said the United States is ready to talk to Iran without preconditions, but that negotiations must cover all of Iran’s destabilizing actions: its nuclear program, support for terror, ballistic missile development.
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has responded that Iran will not negotiate with U.S. officials.
Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions on Iran are having an impact. Despite criticism from Europe, China, India and Turkey, these countries are complying with the sanctions. Iran’s oil sales have declined by 60 percent — from almost 4 million barrels per day in 2017 to only 1 million barrels per day in April. GDP growth is negative. The Iranian rial is basically worthless.
Trump may say that he doesn’t support regime change, but the vast majority of Iranians feel differently. Since December of 2017, non-stop protests in cities throughout the country have chanted, “the game is over,” “death to Rouhani,” and “death to the dictator,” in reference to supreme leader.
The United States has put Iran in a box, with no exit. Ali Khamenei may talk tough, but the Islamic Revolution that he leads has lost all credibility with the people that it rules. The longer he stands by the “economy of resistance,” the weaker he will become.
Returning to the negotiating table is equally problematic for the supreme leader. The failure of the 2015 nuclear deal to bring lasting sanctions relief has emboldened hard-liners to reject compromise. Direct talks with the United States would be an unacceptable admission of defeat for a regime that requires hostilities with the United States to maintain its legitimacy.
But Trump desperately wants a deal. He believes himself to be the world’s best negotiator. Having won the presidency in 2016, his greatest ambition now is to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The danger we face is that the pro-engagement echo chamber could succeed in enticing the president to retreat from a tough line on Iran.
The United States and Iran are playing a waiting game. Iran is waiting for Trump to leave office, in the hopes that his successor will prove more accommodating. America is waiting for Iran’s leaders to change 40 years of bad behavior. That will never happen, no matter how much Trump would like to think otherwise. A leopard never changes spots. The only long-term, sustainable solution to the problem of Iran is a change of leadership.
Tor now, America’s foot is on the necks of the mullahs in Tehran. Under no circumstances should we relax the pressure. No sanctions relief. No nuclear program. No ballistic missile program. No support for the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, or Shia militias in Iraq. If Iran or its proxies use force to test American resolve, we must deter them with missiles, not statements. And if Khamenei does agree to talks, they should include our Arab allies, who have the most to lose by an emboldened theocratic regime in Iran.
Adam Ereli was the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain from 2007 to 2011 and the deputy spokesman for U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush administration.