While President Donald Trump geared up for his address on Iran at the United Nations Tuesday, his National Security Adviser John Bolton headed to Fox News to preview the talk. In Bolton's telling, Trump would cover "the continuing threat of Iran, not just on the nuclear side, but in aggressive, militaristic behavior in the region that puts us at risk" of great power conflict in the Middle East.
"We want massive changes in behavior by the regime in Iran," Bolton said. "And if they don't undertake that, they will face more consequences, because we will find more sanctions to impose and other ways to put maximum pressure on them."
Bolton was not the only Trump team member to discuss Iran in the run-up to Trump's speech—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and even the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, all weighed in. Collectively, they paint a muddled picture of the administration's policy toward Tehran—a picture the president's Tuesday morning speech did not meaningfully clarify—leaving recklessly unsettled the question of whether U.S.-orchestrated regime change is on the Trump agenda.
Giuliani on Saturday endorsed exactly that. "I don't know when we're going to overthrow [the Iranian government]," he said. "It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it's going to happen." To be sure, Giuliani has no official White House role, but his ties to the president are close enough that Haley was deployed to clean up after him Sunday. "We're not looking to do regime change anywhere," she said on CNN. "What we are looking to do is protect Americans, protect our allies, and make sure that we do everything we can to stop [Iran]. And the president has been very strong on Iran."
Yes, Trump's rhetoric has been fiery, and he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. But what, specifically, does "strong on Iran" mean? What is the plan for future negotiations now that the deal withdrawal has Tehran forswearing all talks with Washington? And might an administration presently "not looking to do regime change" end up doing it anyway, because it's part of doing "everything we can to stop [Iran]"?
In other words, does the Trump administration have a coherent strategy here? If "everything we can" is not mere hyperbole, then Haley's words were less a repudiation of Giuliani's threat than a slight tweak in messaging. Trump's own words Tuesday contained the same ambiguity. "We cannot allow the world's leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet's most dangerous weapons," he said. "We cannot allow a regime that chants 'Death to America' and threatens Israel with annihilation." We cannot allow them to—what? Exist? Trump left that question unanswered, instead calling for global isolation of Tehran and support for protests by the Iranian people.
That vagueness is alarming. The impetus to appear "strong on Iran," unbacked by a realistic assessment of the threat Iran does—and, even more important, doesn't—pose to U.S. security is a dangerous step toward repeating the failures of military intervention, regime change, and nation building that have cost us dearly these past two decades.
This strategic confusion is exacerbated by the Trump team's persistent use of half-truths about Iran that distort the reality of the situation. Pompeo accused Iran of "causing insecurity all around the world" with a "global torrent of destructive activity." Iran is certainly not a model state, but the truth is its capacity for destruction is infinitesimal compared to the United States' capacity for deterrence.
In 2017, Iran's total GDP was $439 billion, which is two thirds of American defense spending alone. Iran spent as much money on its entire military last year—about $14.5 billion—as we spend on a single aircraft carrier. On every possible measure, this is a mouse and elephant situation. Iran cannot pose a vital threat to America.
The one possible exception, of course, would be a nuclear strike—but here too the Trump team has its facts wrong. Trump said Tuesday that Iran "cannot possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city on Earth," just as Haley on CNN spoke of Iran "continu[ing] to build their nuclear weapons." Yet independent inspectors have verified that Iran does not have any nuclear weapons either completed or in progress, rendering the means of delivery at present irrelevant. Indeed, Iran "is unable to build any because of the restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal that Trump" left but Iran maintained, notes The American Conservative's Daniel Larison. "There has not been anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in Iran for at least 15 years."
Suggesting otherwise is irresponsible in the extreme, and the exact sort of claim that could raise support for the sort of ill-advised regime change effort Haley has denied. That outcome must be avoided. Our generational war in Iraq has demonstrated all too well the price in blood, treasure, time, and security a regime change war of choice in Iran would exact.
And if Iraq offers a warning here, it is if anything too mild: Iran is a larger, wealthier, and more stable state than Iraq was, and the United States has emptier coffers and a more over-extended military than we did in 2003. A regime change attempt in Iran would be every bit as expensive and futile as it has been in Iraq. It would almost certainly contribute to the expansion of terror networks—recall, al Qaeda was not active in Saddam Hussein's Iraq—and to Mideast instability and American insecurity more broadly. If recent history is any indication, it would create a power vacuum into which some new undesirable, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Libya, would flow.
We are right to wish free and open governance for the Iranian people, but we will regret forcibly imposing it via American military might.
Still, this grim picture is not our destiny. The United States should not invade Iran, and we are by no means bound on course toward intervention. But the Trump team must be more careful here. No more half-facts and mixed messages. No more feckless suggestions that absolutely everything is on the table to force Tehran to bend to Washington's will. No more use of sanctions as a universal tool of statecraft, a lazy and callous substitute for diplomacy. And certainly no more talk of regime change, which more than anything else is guaranteed to keep Iran away from the very negotiating table that Trump says he wants.