Iran’s Isolation

Iran flagThe dirty little secret is out. The Iranian regime has no allies, is sputtering on fumes economically and has good reason to fear a bigger conflict with the United States.

The U.S. strike that killed Qasem Soleimani is not primarily a Donald Trump story, although he’s clearly the man who ordered it and made it happen. Soleimani had enemies around the world, and his legacy is not merely the 608 American troops killed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Soleimani financed, trained, armed, and commanded various militias and factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Every foe of those groups, as well as dissidents of the regime in Iran, all are rejoicing about his death, either publicly or secretly.

We keep hearing about how global power is shifting away from the United States and towards China and Russia, and in some arguments, Iran. There are still good reasons to worry about the long-term trend, but . . . do you notice that China and Russia are, so far, only offering rhetorical support to Iran? China has its own problems to deal with, particularly in Hong Kong. China needs Iran’s oil, and Iran needs China as a buyer of its oil. China does not want the situation to blow up even worse and disrupt Iranian oil shipments.

Meanwhile, in the past week, oil prices are up five percent. Russia doesn’t mind that; it’s the world’s second-biggest oil exporter. As far as Russia’s concerned, this is all good news.

“Russia doesn’t have the slightest intention of getting involved in this squabble, and is trying to distance itself from it as far as possible—even though it will keep expressing support for Iran with very loud declarations,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think tank that advises Russia’s defense establishment.

“Short-term at least, this is all beneficial to Russia: oil prices are up, and the Iranians—a very difficult partner—are being forced to become much more cooperative,” he added.

Notice that you’re not seeing the usual complaints about a “war for oil.” Even the anti-war crowd has realized that the United States imports way less oil than it used to, and only 16 percent of our imports in 2018 came from Persian Gulf countries. (We have never really needed oil from Iran.) Those crowds in the streets of Iranian cities are full of nationalist fervor now. But the situation for the Iranian economy is dire — and will get even worse if this conflict escalates.

Iran’s GDP is believed to have shrunk by almost 10 percent in 2019, and the official unemployment rate is expected to hit 17 percent. For perspective, the Great Recession reduced U.S. gross domestic product by four percent, and unemployment peaked at 10 percent. Iranian oil production has almost halved. The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost half its value, and the cost of living was increased an estimated 35 percent in the past year. This is an economy in free fall.

This doesn’t automatically mean that the Iranian government will not choose the most bellicose or confrontational path forward. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was getting squeezed pretty hard by sanctions in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, and he refused to leave Kuwait. But when an economically struggling country takes on the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the world . . . well, we saw the results in the Persian Gulf War. Sure, the Iranians could use more non-conventional methods, all the way up to terror attacks on the American homeland or cyberattacks. (We already saw a hack of the Federal Depository Library Program’s website Saturday.) But the U.S. military would control the skies and probably the seas of the Persian Gulf and could hit any target it wanted. The Iranian military could get wiped out, its government buildings reduced to rubble, airport runways bombed, oil platforms sunk, refineries destroyed. It would be the end of Khomeni’s revolutionary regime as we know it.

The president’s recent talk of hitting Iranian “cultural sites” is nonsensical and asinine. There’s no military value in destroying those targets, and those strikes would probably just make the Iranian population rally around the government. (Hopefully the military minds who recognize this manage to persuade the president.)

Over on NR’s homepage, I note that since 1979, no one in the United States has figured out a good way to handle the regime in Tehran. From the very beginning, they have made themselves clear: “Death to America” is a slogan, a goal, a philosophy, and a policy. They made their disdain for traditional diplomacy clear the moment their angry mob overran our embassy and took our citizens hostages. For 40 years, we’ve been having the same arguments about how to deal with them, and no matter what we tried, the results were disappointing. Killing Soleimani may make things worse — it will almost certainly spur some violent Iranian response in the coming days, weeks, or months — but it may also force the Iranian regime’s leaders to move more cautiously, knowing they can personally be targeted for vengeance.

But because most American media institutions prefer to interpret every event through the lenses of, “is this good for Trump?” or “is this bad for Trump?” the consequences of this attack are being covered as if they must be disastrous.

Institutions like the New York Times inform us that “teeming crowds chant ‘death to America.’” Yes, that is what they have chanted pretty much every week since 1979. Of course the Iranian government managed to get millions of people into the streets to hail Soleimani as a martyr. Big public demonstrations of nationalist rage and grief are the regime’s bread and butter.

We are warned that the Iranian regime has pledged to restart uranium enrichment. Iran had always developed nuclear weapons in secret and always lied to the world. President Obama assured the American people that under the Iran deal, “inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location.” Iran never lived up to that promise, as military sites were always off-limits. Based upon their history, there is no reason to think the Iranian regime stopped pursuit of a nuclear weapon when the Iran deal was enacted. What changed is that now no one has any incentive to continue pretending that the Iranian government is keeping its promises.

European governments can “scramble” to preserve the nuclear deal, but preserving the deal will require Iran to not retaliate in some outrage-generating fashion — that is, if they blow up Saudi oil refineries or sink tankers in the Persian Gulf or if a truck blows up outside some American embassy, the U.S. government is not going to sign on to a new or revised deal.

Reprinted with permission from - National Review - by Jim Geraghty

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