Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Trump’s Messy Messaging on Iran

The president was at the United Nations today

|||Robin Utrecht/Sipa USA/NewscomRobin Utrecht/Sipa USA/NewscomWhile 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.

Photo Credit: Robin Utrecht/Sipa USA/Newscom

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

Media Contact Reprint Requests

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • chipper me timbers||

    I read the whole speech. It was actually pretty good. If you were to read it without knowing it was Trump, it would sound like a pretty generic address to the UN by any US President or Ambassador.

  • chipper me timbers||

    He wore his total ignorance of trade economics on his sleeve, which was a little embarrassing to read. Ironically, everyone in the room agrees with him on the principles! Lol. They are ALL for tariffs and special rules about trade and who can import what and when. The UN shaking their head at Trump's tariffs is rich.

    I say this a someone who is absolutely opposed to them.

  • John||

    No one outside of the US actually believes in free international trade. They believe in Tariffs and sticking it to the other guy as much as possible. So, if tariffs are the way to ruin, why doesn't every economy in the world look like Venezuela?

  • chipper me timbers||

    I dont' want to argue with you about that but my point is that all the woke globalists at the UN who despise Trump and will be attacking him for his trade war actions are very much in favor of that kind of approach to trade.

  • Fancylad||

    total ignorance of trade economics
    Really? I don't see it. Can you be specific?

  • Mark22||

    He wore his total ignorance of trade economics on his sleeve

    Until libertarianism has become the dominant form of government on this planet, trade isn't just about economics, it's also about politics, power, and security. Fortunately, there are still people who understand that even if you are totally ignorant of these other aspects of trade.

    In different words, yes, trade restrictions make Americans overall poorer. No, that isn't the only factor that counts.

  • lap83||

    "No more use of sanctions as a universal tool of statecraft, a lazy and callous substitute for diplomacy."

    It's not supposed to be a substitute for diplomacy.

    It is amazing to me how inept Reason is when discussing foreign policy. They are like middle schoolers without the possibility of eventual enlightenment through life experience.

  • Lost in the Woods||

    Yes, Reason really is inept in this regard. And, seemingly also becoming more inept on other fronts recently.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    It's a 'progressive' sickness.

  • ||

    "There has not been anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in Iran for at least 15 years."

    WTHF? So the framework put together in 2015 was just a way to hand them money? Stuxnet was just fake news?

  • Homple||

    ^^This, a lot.

  • ||

    I'm sure the subsequent deaths of a number of nuclear physicists in close proximity to ranking members of the Ministry of Defense was just coincidence. There probably never was a *weapons* program and, therefore, stuxnet was a lethal attack on foreign infrastructure perpetrated by the Obama campaign.

  • Homple||

    I'm stll laughing at the Daniel Larison quote. And the article in general for that matter.

  • Juice||

    *Israel, not the US/Obama

    and

    There probably never was a *weapons* program

    ^^This, a lot.

  • SimonP||

    *sigh*

    Stuxnet attacked nuclear centrifuges, which were being used to refine uranium. Successive administrations have been wary of Iran's nuclear enrichment program, not because it had been directly producing weapons-grade nuclear material, but because the more-enriched uranium stockpile shortened the timeframe in which Iran could "break out" a full-blown-nuclear weapons program, if it suddenly decided to commit to one. The terms of the deal were designed to constrain Iran's enrichment activities, and so, to extend that timeline.

    Really, the deal was substantially about Israel, which was increasingly threatening to engage in unilateral covert and overt strikes to attack Iran's nuclear program, such as it was. They were far less willing to tolerate stockpiled uranium than the rest of the world community, so taking that off the table undercut the increasingly incendiary rhetoric of the Netanyahu regime.

    As for the billions - that was money owed to Iran, but withheld pursuant to U.S. sanctions. Releasing those funds to Iran was just permitting them to obtain money that belonged to them.

  • Mark22||

    As for the billions - that was money owed to Iran, but withheld pursuant to U.S. sanctions. Releasing those funds to Iran was just permitting them to obtain money that belonged to them.

    A courtesy many Americans are not granted come April 15.

  • SimonP||

    Tax is theft, yada yada yada

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    "As for the billions - that was money owed to Iran, but withheld pursuant to U.S. sanctions"

    None of that money be,noted to the current regime. So, no.

  • damikesc||

    Indeed, Iran "is unable to build any because of the restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal that Trump"

    Explains the promise to immediately start increasing their program when Trump left.

    Because they cannot do so, right?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    You mean there was an actual news worthy event going on today that didn't involve some assholes forcing a Senator they didn't like to leave a restaurant or what Brett Kavanaugh may or may not have been doing with his privates during his teen years? Shocking.

  • Don't look at me.||

    But not as fun.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    The United Nations General Assembly laughed at U.S. President Donald Trump today.

    Which evoked several 'the United States has become a laughingstock' memories from the Trump campaign . . . which Trump recently called the greatest movement in the history of the United States, by the way.

    Carry on, clingers. Between the times people laugh at you, that is.

  • damikesc||

    Oh no, a collection of thugs and dictators don't like us.

    Oh dear. How dreadful.

    How can we survive being held in low self-esteem by the worst countries on Earth.

    We should walk out, toss them out of NYC, and let them fund their own bullshit and arm their own bullshit.

  • Mark22||

    You may not be aware of this, Kirkland, but European intellectuals have been laughing at the US for more than two centuries. It's their way of dealing with their inferiority complex.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Trump's U.N speech looks good to me.
    [...]
    In other words, the United States is stronger, safer, and a richer country than it was when I assumed office less than two years ago.

    We are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.

    This is great news for our citizens and for peace-loving people everywhere. We believe that when nations respect the rights of their neighbors, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity, and peace.

    Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth.

    That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.

    I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.

    We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.
    [....]

  • Juice||

    That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.

    LOL

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Americanism vs Socialism

  • mtrueman||

    Americans are even more deeply in debt than they were before Trump assumed office. Economic servitude is not an American tradition he should be celebrating.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Imagine if Congress cut the budget like Trump wanted.

    Congress controls the purse.

    Trump deserves some blame for signing all debt spending but Congressmen who spend like drunken sailors keep getting reelected.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    And they will continue to do so, until we reach the sixth level of hell

  • mtrueman||

    "Congress controls the purse."

    Congress clearly wants Americans to be up to their eyes in debt, what better way to guarantee the continued docility of America's non heckling restaurant customers. Americans prefer debt for other reasons. ie beats working for a living.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    I'm pretty sure nothing gets fixed until America deals with it's progtards problem. In my home district, I'm forced to vote for either a RINO, or a far leftist career politician who worked for the Sandinista government back in the day and shilled for their Marxist policies in her job as an economist and professor there.

    So I will vote for the RINO only because the alternative is far worse. This sort of thing is why the democrat party has to go. Then we can vote out RINOs and vote in conservatives and libertarians.

  • Mark22||

    Economic servitude is not an American tradition he should be celebrating.

    Economic servitude? The US dictates under what conditions US debt is repaid. If we don't want to repay, we don't repay.

  • Rockabilly||

    Fuck the UN......

    Move all those fucking egg head freeloaders and the ugly fucking building to Afghanistan.

    Put them on all a fucking barge and point it toward Afghanistan.


    And fuck Woodrow Wilson, the first democrat progressive socialist asshole war monger fucking president.

  • Hank Phillips||

    What this country needs is some more entangling alliances like Europe, Korea, Vietnam and the Ottoman Empire. With enough younger voters killed off the GOP just might survive Four More Years on doddering geezer votes and Televangelist donations.

  • Fancylad||

    The younger voters are more /pol/ than SJW. Meanwhile the DNC is the party of middle-age, bourgeoisie women.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Oh Hank, ever so witty.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Yeah, that's what America needs.
    Another war in the Middle East.
    The last two weren't working out too well.

  • Lost in the Woods||

    With all due respect to Bonnie Kristian, "messy" and "incoherent" seem to more accurately describe this article than Trump's speech. Where to even begin.

    "There has not been anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in Iran for at least 15 years." - Then what was the purpose of the massive deal that Obama cut with Iran about?

    "leaving recklessly unsettled the question of whether U.S.-orchestrated regime change is on the Trump agenda" - No, in fact it would be reckless to prematurely telegraph US policy in this regard.

    "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" - This might be the stupidest thing I have read today. This is an asymmetrical situation. It is always easier to destroy than to do just about anything else. And how does Reason suggest the US practice this powerful deterrence, if not by sanctions, not by military force (real or threatened), not by . . . everything else.

    I don't care much for president Trump, but honestly, this was a decent speech, clearly outlining Trump's differing vision than that of his predecessor, and his differing vision from must of those in the audience. There are many reasons to dislike Trump from a libertarian perspective. Surely Reason can do better than this.

  • mtrueman||

    ""leaving recklessly unsettled the question of whether U.S.-orchestrated regime change is on the Trump agenda" - No, in fact it would be reckless to prematurely telegraph US policy in this regard."

    US policy may not be as important as you think. Obama was drawn into the the Libya business because France and the UK were pushing for it. If Trump gets sucked into an Iranian quagmire, it'll be Israel and KSA pulling the strings.

    "Then what was the purpose of the massive deal that Obama cut with Iran about?"

    Not nukes. Formalizing the arrangement and rolling back economic sanctions.

  • Mark22||

    US policy may not be as important as you think. Obama was drawn into the the Libya business because France and the UK were pushing for it

    And if Obama had had any backbone, he would have said "solve your own g-damn problems".

  • David Emami||

    "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."

    Putting aside the overall policy, I see this sort of statement a lot, and it's silly. Material and labor costs vary from country to country, and those costs apply to the military as much as to anything else. The personnel budget of the DoD is almost double its procurement budget. Comparing spending to determine military ability is like noting that a person in Japan spend ten times the per-capita amount on food that a person in India does, and concluding that the average Japanese guy consumes ten times the calories. The US military is definitely more powerful than the Iranian one, but the relevant comparison is in troops under arms, number and capabilities of aircraft, etc., not money spent.

  • SimonP||

    Yeah, Giuliani, in his rambly old-dotard kind of way, gave away the game here. They want regime change. Their policy is about regime change. They think that they can be coy about it and deny it, but they want to goad the Revolutionary Guard into pushing for a resumption of the nuclear program, and then that'll give them (or Israel) the plausible rationale they think they need to go to war. Worked for Dubya, they'll think. Get entangled in a war, get re-elected in 2020. Easy peasy. Let the facts sort themselves out later.

    It's remarkable to me that the Trump morons here haven't come out in forceful support of this implicit policy. Grousing about the Iran deal, sure. But I don't see anyone frothing at the mouth for regime change in Iran or any kind of aggressive military strategy in that regard. Which I find interesting.

  • Mark22||

    t's remarkable to me that the Trump morons here haven't come out in forceful support

    That's because you are such a progressive moron that you think that anybody who isn't always critical of Trump all the time is a "Trump moron".

  • SimonP||

    So, are you suggesting that there aren't people here who would support regime change in Iran just because Trump says that's what he wants to do?

  • Michael Cook||

    Rockabilly said something that I will respond to at the tail end of the responses. He expressed a deep disgust for Woodrow Wilson as presumably the first of the modern American globalists. I should add that WW was a bit more complex than that.

    Recall that WW was the first Southern-culture Democrat to be elected POTUS in quite a long time. Moreover, Woodrow was a bit of a populist, although he tried hard to hide it. Wilson's racism and tacit support of the disenfranchisement of black voters come to mind.

    The true populist streak in the Democrat Party, however, was represented in Wilson's cabinet by William Jennings Bryan, a fiery orator from the Platte River country who was the Democrat candidate for president in 1896 at the age of only 36 and lost to McKinley then and again in 1900, shortly after which McKinley was shot by a man unhappy with Republican imperialistic policies that had just acquired the Philippines and Cuba.

    WJB was famous for his Free Silver advocacy, which was the inflationary policy of the day and very popular with populists in the Western states. As Secretary of State WJB was intensely pacifistic and his Christian idealism further came out in support for women's suffrage and Prohibition. His globalism was a Christian recruiting vision.

  • TGoodchild||

    "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."

    Whose assessment is not realistic, and why? If you are trying to deduce the characteristics of reality on planet Earth from rhetoric, godspeed. It is strange to take the probably-deliberately-vague words of the POTUS, or any politician, at face value, and then decry them for being vague. Similarly, does anyone seriously believe that the recently-imposed tariffs on Chinese goods will last for 7.5 billion years, when the Sun will consume the Earth?

    Also, to Daniel Larison's quote "[t]here has not been anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in Iran for at least 15 years - how and why would he know otherwise, exactly? He could have said "we haven't seen strong evidence of anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in Iran for at least 15 years," which would be more accurate (discounting whether enrichment activities are included in the definition of a "weapons program") but begs the question of what Obama and Kerry were doing in the first place. Of course, they probably couldn't tell you, either.

  • messages||

    thank you

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online