The Situation in Iran

Heritage Explains

The Situation in Iran

What's the right move in this escalating situation with Iran and how is President Trump handling it?

Tim Doescher: From the Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher and this is Heritage Explains.

Doescher: It's been a hectic two weeks in Iran. Here's a short recap.

News Anchor 1: Two oil tankers attacked early this morning in the Gulf of Oman with one actually on fire. This comes during heightened tensions between the US and Iran.



Doescher: Well, just moments ago, the Pentagon authorized an additional 1000 American troops to the Middle East, in response to growing concerns over Iran where tensions have been quickly mounting. Just today, Iran moved to increase uranium enrichment levels and break the stockpile limit set by the 2015 Obama Nuclear Deal within the next 10 days. The threat comes on the heels of last week's oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, which the US says Iran is clearly behind.

News Anchor 2: In Iran today after Iran shot down an unmanned US Air Force drone, that it says violated Iranian airspace early this morning, Iran time. The US insists this drone was flying in international airspace calling the incident "an unprovoked attack".

Doescher: Now, this all happened within a week's time. While many of the talking heads on TV were debating what the US response would be, President Trump cleared the air, sort of. In the now famous tweet, he said, "On Monday, they shot down an unmanned drone flying in international waters. We were cocked and loaded to retaliate last night on three different sites. When I asked how many will die? "150 people, sir.", was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike, I stopped it. Not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone." And of course with that, the talking heads on cable news had a field day.

Pundit 1: I think part of the problem here is that Donald Trump comes from the world of TV, where nothing is real, nothing has actual consequences, and when it suddenly occurs to him that this isn't a TV show and that people are going to shoot back, I think that that changes his calculation at the last minute.

Pundit 5: The president is listening to Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson, Tom Cotton, none of whom are national security experts. They don't have the expertise. Who he's not listening to is the CIA director, the Joint Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Acting Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and some of the other people who should be providing input in terms of a primary committee as what the longterm US strategy should be.

Pundit 6: What we're seeing is a ratcheting up of the tensions. In the Straits of Hormuz, there are going to be possibly severe consequences all the way around. This administration I think, has got to figure out and tell both its allies as well as, its adversaries, "This is where we're trying to go and why. This is why we canceled the Iran nuclear deal. This is why we're doing maximum pressure. This is what we're supposed to get on the other side." It's still unclear what that's supposed to be.

Doescher: A few days following the president's decision to cancel the potentially deadly strike, the president announced new sanctions on Iran.

President Donald Trump: Sanctions imposed through the executive order that I'm about to sign will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader's office and those closely affiliated with him, and the office access to key financial resources and support, the assets of Ayatollah Khomeini and his office will not be spared from the sanctions. These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran's increasingly provocative actions. We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran until the regime abandons its dangerous activities, and it's aspirations, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons, increased enrichment of uranium, development of ballistic missiles, engagement in and support for terrorism, fueling of foreign conflicts and belligerent acts directed against the United States and its allies.

Doescher: But like everything else, there are many sides to this story. Many speculate that the president's actions weren't enough, and the sanctions won't work. Some demanded an attack. Others are frustrated at just another conflict in the Middle East. So what's the right move in this situation? How's the president handling it? Is this just a big miscalculation by Iran? To bring clarity to this murky situation is Dr. James Carafano. He works here at Heritage as the Vice President of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. He's also the E.W. Richardson Fellow. This week, he explains. Dr Carafano, thank you so much for joining us on Explains this week.

James Carafano: Hey, good to be with you.

Doescher: You said in your recent piece in Fox News, and I'm going to link to both of your pieces that you did last week, and you said earlier today that, that's what happens when you're sleep deprived.

Carafano: That's such a great inspiring thing, to not have any sleep.

Doescher: Yeah, but you've been, that's just a product. All this is a product of a lack of sleep, so-

Carafano: If only we could get the whole world to fight on Eastern Standard Time, things would be way so much better.

Doescher: Moving to the piece, and again this is really, really great information folks, so you got to log in and read this, but we're going to do our best to explain it here. Dr Carafano, a lot has happened over the last week in Iran. We're going to go back and forth between the left and the right argument against each other, but maybe you could just catch us up a little bit on what's going on there.

Carafano: Yeah, so maybe we ought to start with the really big picture and then work our way down. Look, the United States is a global power with global interest and global responsibilities. That's just a fact. We do business, and we care about things which are important to us all over the world. It doesn't make us, the world's policemen, it doesn't make us the world's babysitter, it just means that we have to be around the world protecting things that are important to the United States. Well, there are really three parts of the world that North America to the United States, to the rest of the world, and they are Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Carafano: What the United States wants as a foreign policy is, we generally want those parts of the world to be at peace. They don't have to be the land of milk and honey. I mean there can be bad things going on, but we want them essentially to be stable, because as long as they're stable, then we can either get where we need to be to protect our interest, or we could be forward to protect our interests. And so, the Middle East is important, not just as one of those three, but also because what happens in the Middle East often spills over to Western Europe. Okay, so we want a stable Middle East, well why do we care about the Gulf? Especially since a lot of people say, "Well look. Aren't we self-sufficient on petrochemicals, on oil and gas?"

Carafano: The answer is yes. An enormous strategic advantage for the United States. But, we still care about the 15% of the world's oil that flows through the Gulf. The reason for that is oil is a global commodity. It's traded globally. If you take 15% of the world's oil off the market, it impacts us just as much as anybody else, and it impacts the global economy. That's not good for us. Then that 15% of the oil, a lot of that oil goes to people who either our partners and allies or countries that do a lot of business with. We don't want to see their economies tank because of the Iranians.

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Carafano: Last is, the United States is interested in freedom of the seas. It allows us to go around the world and do our business. We're particularly interested in freedom of the seas, and the freedom of navigation, in what's called strategic waterways. Parts of the world that almost everybody transits, including our ships and our carriers. The Gulf is one of those. We have an interest in keeping those waterways open. And so if that's the job, then from a military perspective, as somebody that was in the military for 25 years, and I was in the War college, I worked in the Pentagon and I saw how military put landscape together. You look and say, "Well, what makes sense for what we're doing in the Gulf? You have to have forces there to keep the waterways open, right? And to deter the Iranians from trying to close them.

Doescher: Iran has ... Technically, they have denied responsibility for attacking the oil tankers last week. That was actually the justification for us sending troops. The president said that Iran is responsible. Iran said, "We're not responsible." So, those attacks in your explanation of keeping the waterways free, and keeping the flow of commerce and oil through there is important, so you would say that the thousand troops is absolutely justified.

Carafano: Right. Let me tell you how Iranians think, right? How could they do something and then deny they're doing it? To most people, that would seem to make no sense, but it makes sense from an Iranian perspective. The Iranians are in a tough part of the world. In that part of the world, if you aren't strong and powerful, you're basically on the menu. And so, As the US pushes back on Iranian influence, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, sanction the Iranians, to the rest of the region who they're trying to intimidate and overwhelm, they look weak. They have to push back against the United States. They've got to find ways to do that, such as sabotaging these tankers and pipelines. On the other hand, the Iranians aren't stupid. There would be lots of bad, bad things if there was American Iranian war.

Carafano: Many, many people would suffer. But the absolute one thing that we know for a fact that would happen, is that the regime in Tehran would cease to exist. If you're a regime and you're just interested in surviving, the last thing you're going to do is actually want to pick a war with the United States. They're in this weird place where they want to do aggressive things and they want everybody to know they did aggressive things, so they can show everybody they're tough. But on the other hand, they want to deny they're doing them because they also don't want to escalate with the United States, and they want to try and keep the United States from building a coalition to pressure and isolate Iran.

Doescher: Yeah. Which is just so funny and coincidental that after we announced we're sending troops, just out of nowhere, Iran shoots down one of our drones.

Carafano: Look, I get politics. I get that people are partisan. I get that. They want to get elected. They don't want the other guy. I get all that. But for anybody in the United States to actually buy the Iranian line, that they didn't have anything to do with sabotaging the tankers, they didn't shoot ... That is just beyond shameful. I mean, to take the side of this authoritarian regime. Look. The evidence that we actually have of them physically sabotaging the tanker, that is very conclusive. I mean so conclusive that, I think that's sufficient evidence in a US court of law, you could convict somebody of sabotage. As far for claiming that the US drone was in Iranian airspace, therefore they had a right to shoot it down.

Carafano: A Global Hawk, which is a high altitude surveillance aircraft, is a incredibly powerful surveillance platform. The Global Hawk did not need to fly in Iranian airspace to see everything in airspace, it needed to do to surveil that airspace. Global Hawks don't get lost. I think just the claim that somehow it strayed into their airspace, I think it's just farcical. Actually see Americans, some of the politicians, some of them actually government officials take the Iranian side, just shows the height of partisanship. We used to say, "Politics ends at the water's edge." Apparently for some people in America it doesn't.

Doescher: What is the response then, to this? I know, there was word that the president was 10 minutes away from doing a response, airstrike, and that kind of thing, but he withdrew that. A lot of people on the right were saying that he should have gone through with that. What's your response to that? What is the proper response to them shooting down one of our drones?

Carafano: Well, I actually think the president made the right call. He used the right word when he said a proportional response. There isn't an absolute requirement for the United States to proactively attack Iranian targets because they shot the drone down. We can complain, we can protest, but there's no loss of life there. There's no significant impingement on the US capability to keep the straits open or continue to its mission. Therefore, you could argue having warned the Iranians and ... That's probably sufficient. Now if they actually killed Americans, then you might do something different. I might say, what would make sense? Well, look. What would make sense is something that's not a punitive strike. Punitive strike means we're going to punish them for attacking us. What you would do is something called a counter strike, which means that you would eliminate the threat to US forces and capabilities.

Carafano : You might ask, "Well, why do we care about being proportional? Why don't we just bring the hammer down?" The answer is look, in addition to keeping the waterways open, we are trying to isolate and sanction the regime. Therefore, even though we can do this by ourself, the more international pressure we bring, and the more allies we bring to the table in this mission, the more effective the isolation of Iran is going to be. I think that's a higher priority. By the United States being disciplined and proportional in its response to the Iranians, I think that helps us build the case that the Iranians are really the bad guy here. I have got to give the president all the credit. I think he did exactly the right thing. I think much of the criticism that we saw over the weekend, much of it based on just newspaper reporting, much of the reporting inaccurate, partial information, just blatant assumptions or just political bias. It was like people were Monday morning quarterbacking without actually having watched the game on Sunday. I mean, some of it was just horrible.

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Doescher: In your piece in the New York Post, which again, it was a great headline. I imagine it's driving a lot of people to read it. You said Iran is boxing itself into a corner by provoking the US. You said, "Iran is stuck on stupid, and it knows it. As long as Trump doesn't overplay his hand, he can keep Tehran on the run for a very long time." How would he overplay his hand in the situation?

Carafano: Well, I got to be honest with you. I didn't write the headline, and I actually had a different headline. Mine was like Iran Was Caught Between The Basis. Because I thought for the New York Post, that is like a way better metaphor, right? In baseball, the runner leaves first, and he thinks he can steal second, but he gets caught, right? Then they run this guy down second and first, second and first. To me, that's what Trump has done. As the Iranians tried to ratchet things up and get away with something and Trump caught them, and they're caught in the middle. They can't back down, but they really can't go forward. They're kind of stuck on stupid. One of the things that we ... Some of the reporting, we said that, maybe the Iranian Government didn't intentionally shoot the drone down. That there are some reporting that, it might've been done independently by an IRGC Commander.

Carafano: That's the military militia that controls much of the assets. That may have done that without authorization. And so again, it suggests that maybe Iran wasn't really interested in escalating, and again, the president made the right choice by holding back. But I do think the US holds all the cards because Iran is politically isolated. Their economy is in terrible shape. The sanctions have been horribly effective at really limiting the regime. Iran doesn't really have a way to close the waterways, and they can't really escalate confrontation without risking counter strikes from the US military. They don't have a lot of really good cards.

Doescher: Explain sanctions to me as a non-foreign policy kind of person, which I am, not a foreign policy person. One, just explain how sanctions are really affecting Iran. I mean, we can put all sorts of sanctions on them, but they're going to go elsewhere to make up for that. How are we really affecting them through putting sanctions on?

Carafano: Yeah. I mean the way sanctions work is, it's really easy to explain. It's like, "Dude, do the math." Iran does business with people. I mean, pick a number. You do $1 billion of business with Iran. I just made that number up. Those same people do business with other people. They do business with the United States. So maybe they do $50 billion of business with the United States, and $1 billion with Iran. The United States says, "Dude, if you do business with them, you can't do business with us." Any businessman looks at that and goes, "Oh, okay, that's not going to work for me." If you're an international bank and you have to finance these things, or you're an insurance company and you insure these things, pretty much everybody gets the message that doing business with this guy does not make any sense. Iran's economy is heavily, heavily dependent on oil revenue. Their oil revenue has dried up dramatically.

Carafano: It's not just that stuff, they can sell in things, but it's what brings in hard currency and hard cash. Because Iranian money is increasingly worthless because of the inflation, because the economy is dead, dead in the water. They're really dependent on hard cash from external countries coming in to fund things. And that's just drying up. Remember, the Iranian government isn't just paying for the Iranian government. They're supporting surrogates all over the regions. The Houthis in Yemen fighting the Saudis, the militias in Syria, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq. They're paying for it, and they've got to pay everybody off because they're an authoritarian regime. You stay in power by bribing everybody that has the guns that keep you in power. Just keeping that structure in place costs a fortune. There's no money left for health care and potatoes. That's why the Iranian economy is in the shape it's in.

Doescher: How much of this is related to the US withdrawing from the Iran deal that Obama had made, and then, when Trump was elected walked that back?

Carafano: I think honestly, almost none. I remind people that Iran became the sworn enemy of the United States after the Iranian revolution. That was in the 1970s. It was like five presidents ago. Iran's treated America like an enemy forever. Even under the Iran deal, which was negotiated under President Obama, Iran did not stop hating America. They did not stop attacking America's interest. They didn't stop destabilizing the region. All they stopped doing was a certain level of nuclear activities in their civil nuclear side for agreed period of time, in return for billions of dollars and access to trade with the Western European countries and the rest of the world.

Doescher: So Iran, as you mentioned in your piece, that Iran is waiting out president Trump. What do you mean by that?

Carafano: Yeah, no, I think that's right. I think from the Iranian perspective ... and the Iranians and North Koreans talk to each other all the time. And so, the North Koreans are negotiating with Trump, and they're coming back and they're telling the Iranians what they think. Then the Iranians are making up their own mind. I think from the Iranian perspective, they listen to American advisers, Americans who have come to Iran to talk to the leaders from the political opposition. They listen to Europeans, and they listen to North Koreans and they think, "Well, maybe this guy won't be here in two years." We've already seen a handful of Democratic presidential candidates promise that they'll come back to the Iran deal. So, "We'll open up to the West again, we'll get more money coming in. We won't have to do anything for that." And so, from their perspective, the easiest thing to do is just wait Trump out. Just wait two years and hope he's gone.

Carafano: I wouldn't blame them, I'd do the same thing. Like I said, in the meantime, as Trump pressures down on them, they can't afford to look weak. They have to do a certain level of activity to push back, just to show that they're the tough guys they think they are. But I honestly think that the odds of the Iranians actually coming to the table before they have no other alternative, but to deal with Trump are unrealistic. Will they come back to the table? Well, let's look at history. The reason why they negotiated with Obama is because under Bush, we put such heavy sanctions in place that the Iranians actually felt squeezed, and then they felt like they had to do a deal. If they did it once, who's to say they won't do it again, except maybe this time, we'll insist on a deal that actually serves our interests and not Iran's.

Doescher: Last question here. Moving forward, I guess the best option then for the Trump administration is to just continue with the sanctions, or what more can we do moving forward?

Carafano: I think the sanctions. In addition, the political and diplomatic isolation, keeping the military forces in place to keep the waterways open. We can do this. We did this before in the 1980s, there was a thing called the Tanker War in which their Iranians tried to close the Gulf. The Reagan administration went in and we positioned, actually positioned assets on oil platforms in the Gulf. We basically ran patrols. You didn't have to have a carrier there. I mean, and we could do that forever. We know how to do this and we've done it before, so I think the combination of keeping the waterways open, the sanctions, the political pressure, these are things that will keep, I think Iran at bay, until they realize that their only real option is to come back and negotiate a real deal.

Carafano: I think that we're several years off from that. But in the meantime, I think this administration can do a lot to keep peace and stability in the region. Actually if you listen to our friends in that part of the world, as opposed to the pundits and the media and everything else, they're actually sitting there cheering the United States and saying, "Yeah, you're doing exactly the right thing."

Doescher: Maybe some yoga, and definitely some sleep for you coming up here.

Carafano: Yeah. Yoga and coffee, which I know don't seem like they go together, but at Heritage, they do.

Doescher: Thank you so much Dr Carafano.

Carafano: Thank you.

Doescher: That's it for this week's episode of Heritage Explains. You can find all of Dr Carafano's work on Iran in the show notes. It's really, really good stuff. You're going to get the full perspective. We tried our best to capture all of it here on the show today, but there's so much more there. Please head on over to the show notes, and also if you want to see him appear on TV, you can visit YouTube. The Heritage Foundation YouTube page has all of his recent appearances going over all of what's been happening in Iran. If you are one of our faithful YouTube listeners, first of all, thank you. We love seeing how active you are in the comments section. It really is fun to read them, so please keep them coming. It's a great way for us to know how to improve the show. If you aren't into leaving public comments, please shoot us an email @managingeditoratheritage.org. That's managingeditor@heritage.org. We love hearing from you, and we do take your suggestions.

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