US needs to be tough on Iran, no matter who is president

US needs to be tough on Iran, no matter who is president

President Hassan Rouhani chairing a cabinet meeting in the capital Tehran. (File/AFP)
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After Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president in 2013, then-US President Barack Obama’s administration viewed his government as a “moderate” administration. This assessment had a dramatic and damaging effect on the Middle East that is still being felt today.
The relatively inexperienced Obama administration unwisely assumed that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, the lifting of sanctions on the Iranian regime, and allowing it to rejoin the global financial system would usher in a better era for the region and the Iranian people. However, it should have been obvious to anyone who understands the complexities and characteristics of the Iranian regime and the region that, not only would this not be the case, but that Tehran had no interest in empowering its ordinary people. Instead, it wanted to pursue its hegemonic ambitions and military adventurism in the region.
Now, after seven years of Rouhani’s presidency, it is clear that the so-called moderates in the Iranian regime had no desire to prioritize peace and stability in the Middle East. Can anyone seriously point to the region today and say that the rush to tolerate or even embrace Iran’s “moderate” politicians has made the region a safer, more prosperous and more stable place? The consequences are there for all to see: A Syria torn to pieces by destructive civil war; Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon being more emboldened to wreak havoc across the region; and an Iran that has seen its missile program and funding of proxies proliferate unabated due to the overly generous JCPOA.
Another consequence of believing Iran’s so-called moderate politicians to be constructive players was a worsening of relations with traditional US allies. The Gulf states were needlessly excluded from the nuclear deal negotiations with Iran, despite living on its doorstep and feeling the consequences of Iranian proxy actions far more acutely than any of the JCPOA nations. This generated a scenario that failed to recognize their rightful concerns about missile proliferation and the funding of violent proxies within and next door to their territories. The Obama administration’s soft spot for the so-called moderate politicians of Iran, such as Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was arguably a key factor in the Iranian regime feeling like it had even greater license for foreign adventurism.

It is clear that the so-called moderates in the Iranian regime had no desire to prioritize peace and stability in the Middle East.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

In recent years, relations between the US and its traditional allies in the region have somewhat improved. The Donald Trump White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, despite its many detractors, is also beginning to bear fruit, with Tehran finally feeling the economic need to pull back resources from its band of proxies, making it extremely difficult for them to continue fighting and destabilizing the region. Iran’s currency, the rial, has been in freefall in the last few weeks and has plunged to a record low. The regime is subsequently finding it extremely difficult to acquire enough revenue to pay its employees. Many government employees have even been protesting over their unpaid wages.
However, there remains a sense of American disinterest in the region. This is allowing other powers, in the form of Russia and China, to play a more prominent role; visibly in the case of the former and more discreetly with the latter.
America’s presidential election is the democratic contest above all others whose impact is felt far beyond the country’s borders. That is no less true for this November’s poll and how it will affect the Middle East. Despite America’s gradual withdrawal from the region in recent years, the occupant of the Oval Office still holds considerable sway and influence across the region. Whether it is Trump or Joe Biden in office come January, pushing back against the destabilizing activities of the Iranian regime and its hard-line agenda should definitely be the overarching priority.
In order to achieve this important objective, the US needs to build a bulwark against the Iranian regime and continue building dependable, reliable security partnerships in the Middle East. This is particularly the case given America’s reluctance to commit troops and military hardware to the region in the numbers it once did.
The Iranian regime is at the root of many of the major tensions seen across the Middle East. If the US wants to avoid the destabilization of its close allies in the Gulf and avoid giving Russia and China a freer hand, then it cannot offer Tehran and the so-called moderates such as Rouhani even tacit acceptance. The approach the next US president takes to this issue will define America’s regional standing for decades to come.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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