Iran and the Levers of Global Power

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)Vis-à-vis Tehran, Trump has more choices than previous presidents have had, partly because the U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.

In the current American–Iran stand-off are a number of global players. That is hardly new, but what is novel is that, for the first time in decades, there’s almost no power that can obstruct or alter U.S. efforts to confront Iranian aggressions in America’s own time and fashion.

In other words, the United States is almost immune from the sort of pressures that usually coalesce to dictate, modify, or thwart U.S. decision-making in the Middle East. Such liberation from outside coercion is singularly unusual in the post-war American overseas experience.

The Muslim World
Usually in any showdown with a Muslim state of the Middle East, especially a large, theocratic country like Iran, the United States would be subject to the usual Islamic boilerplate slurs of Islamophobia, racism, imperialism, and colonialism, and we’d see popular anti-American unrest. But in the Muslim world, Iran is probably more unpopular than even the Trump administration. Renegade allies such as Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad’s rump remains of Syria, and Hamas are reminders that Iran has no friends. Hatred for Tehran in the Middle East transcends the ancient Persian–Arab and Shiite–Sunni fault lines, and it’s fueled by 40 years of Iran-backed terrorism, bullying, and backing of insurgent movements throughout the Middle East.

Usually even the whiff of an impending crisis in the shipping lanes or oil fields of the Middle East sparks a run on oil, higher prices, and dire warnings of OPEC price hikes, embargoes, and gas lines. Not now. The U.S. today is the world’s largest producer of gas and oil. It may soon become the greatest exporter of these fuels as well. America’s strategic interest in Iran as either an oil producer or an adjudicator of oil shipping traffic is mostly the interest of a paternalistic global power that traditionally invests its blood and treasure for the supposedly higher good of “post-war order.” Translated, that means there is nothing Iran can do to the energy supplies of the United States. Any damage it does through spiking prices or curtailing global reserves will either function as a minor irritant, retard somewhat the global economy, or boost prices.

Usually when the U.S. has intervened in the Middle East, pressure is applied to Israel. America then plays a wink-and-nod game by trying to “restrain” the Israelis to prevent any anti-American blowback from the reopened Israeli–Palestinian sore. But that is hardly the case in the present dispute. One, Israel also is now energy-independent and does not need Middle East–imported oil. Two, it is far more powerful, both in an economic and military sense, and both absolutely and relatively to other Middle East nations. Three, an unspoken reality is that most Arab nations trust nuclear Tel Aviv more than they do would-be-nuclear Tehran, and they’d be only too happy to see the Jewish state confront Iran. In sum, the U.S. has few worries that Iran might do any major damage to Israel or galvanize a Middle East jihad against it. Nor, in the present crisis, do we fear that our own support for Israel might erode a common anti-Iranian Middle East front.

The European Union, of course, is often against most things we are for in the Middle East. But this time around, the strategic landscape is quite different from what it was during past U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya. The Trump administration has had a bruising confrontation with European NATO members over meeting their promised 2 percent of GDP investments in their own defense. Prominent holdouts such as Germany have more or less let it be known that they have no intention of meeting the minimum NATO-prescribed levels of armament. The European Union is actively resisting American-imposed sanctions on Iran. In general, it despises the Trump administration. If a cynic factored in all these security and strategic currents, one could only conclude with absurdities: Europe does not wish a confrontation with an Iran that is already attacking tankers that supply oil to needy clients such as Europe. Europe lacks the military wherewithal to protect oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. Europe resists reinstitution of sanctions against Iran. A proximate Europe is far more vulnerable to a nuclear Iran than is the U.S.

In other words, Europe offers no coherent argument to U.S. other than something like “We oppose you about upping our own defense spending; we oppose you in getting out of the Iran deal; we oppose you in sanctioning Iran — and yet we believe it is your responsibility to accept our advice and to protect oil shipping from Iranian attacks even though such commerce is vital to our interests but not yours.” In sum, that is not a strategy that can have much effect on American policy.

China is currently in a trade and tariff stand-off with the United States. Much of Iran’s nuclear capability so far has either come directly from China or was rerouted to it via North Korea. Nearly half of China’s imported oil comes from the Middle East. And nearly half of all Middle East trade is with Asia, most of it with China.

As a result, any Iranian disruption of Middle East shipping hurts Chinese oil supplies and Chinese trade far more than it does the United States. Fairly or not, the United States is not so motivated, as it once was during the Reagan administration’s tanker war, to reflag merchant vessels to ensure steady and safe transit through the Strait of Hormuz. The optics alone — the American Navy braving fire to ensure that most ships heading to and from China remain safe from China’s useful attack-dog ally, Iran — are surreal. At worst, the United States simply does not care what Iran does to Chinese commerce. At best, it would likely find advantages in its current crisis with Beijing, content to see the Chinese worried about the reliability of their Middle East export and import markets that they have endangered by their own reckless exportation of nuclear know-how.

Russia’s interest in the Iranian crisis is consistent with Putin’s policies of the past decade, which have now been intensified by the Russian-collusion hoax: Whatever the United States is for, it is against, and any crisis that might spike world oil prices is good for Russia. Russia, then, would probably prefer to see the U.S. bogged down in a shooting war with Iran, and it might even encourage such a scenario. But otherwise it has no direct leverage on U.S. strategic choices. Its nihilism toward the U.S. is predictable and increasingly irrelevant.

The Anti-War Left
Usually, the American Left — the new progressive Democratic party, the media, the universities, popular culture, and entertainment — is against any GOP-endorsed foreign-policy choices that consider the use of force. And it has formidable resources, as we saw from 2006 to 2008, to erode a Republican administration that becomes mired in any armed confrontation abroad that lacks or cannot sustain 51 percent approval. I add the qualifier “Republican” because there is little evidence that the Left was much bothered by Obama’s continuance of the Afghan war, the Obama administration’s optional bombing of Libya, or Obama’s targeted-assassination drone attacks along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Yet the Left now can apply little pressure or find much traction in its Pavlovian opposition to all initiatives Trump — never truer than during the budding Iranian crisis where it is playing a reflexively negative role. Progressives initially railed about Trump’s provocation and warlike politics that allegedly risked war. After Trump’s stand-down, they immediately turned on a dime to damn the administration’s purported appeasement and inaction in the face of Iranian provocation.

The Left forgets that Trump ran on a Jacksonian policy of strong deterrence predicated on reactive not preemptive defense. The subtext of his appeal to the swing-state constituencies was that the sons and daughters of the deplorables were not going to risk dying for the nation-building dreams of the elite. Like it or not, Trump’s electoral concerns are not just that he not appear weak in the face of Iranian aggression, but also that he not incite a war of choice with Iran or undertake optional strikes. By showing forbearance thus far, Trump has put the Left in a dilemma, given that the next Iranian aggression, if it targets Americans, will earn a response from a heretofore restrained Trump, and the dilemma will be the Left’s: Is there any conceivable scenario in which it would strike back against Iranian aggression that resulted in the deaths of Americans?

In sum, Trump has some choices with Iran that few other presidents have enjoyed. After considering all the bad alternatives, Trump will likely conclude that the good one is to stay calm as Iran implodes, to not play omnipotent global cop responsible for the safe commerce of those who oppose U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal, and to not weaken sanctions — and be ready to hit back hard should Iran be so foolish as to kill Americans in international space.

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NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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