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Iran’s ‘Behavior’ Isn’t Threatening Americans. Don’t Use That Pretense to Scrap the Nuclear Deal.

John Glaser

In a speech Tuesday at the Wilson Center in
Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump
administration is “committed to addressing the totality of
the Iranian threat,” asking America’s allies “to
join us in standing up to all of Iran’s malign
behavior,” including its “support for terrorist
organizations” and “active ballistic missile
development program.”

He echoed President Trump’s rationale last month for decertifying the Iran
nuclear deal, an Obama-era agreement that put a lid on Iran’s
nuclear program by imposing a set of restrictions and a
comprehensive inspections regime. Like Tillerson, Trump cited two
issues that lie outside the deal itself: Iran’s support for proxy groups such as Hezbollah in
Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Houthi rebels in Yemen; and Iran’s
development of ballistic missiles.

But the obsession with these Iranian policies amounts to threat
inflation. Neither poses a serious threat to America’s
domestic security or core national interests and they don’t
warrant jettisoning a thus-far successful nuclear nonproliferation

This is just a way for
Trump and Tillerson to attack an agreement they don’t

As Thomas Juneau recently argued for The Post, “Tehran’s
support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is
marginal.” They aren’t primarily Iranian proxies, but
characterizing them as such serves a narrative perpetuated by the
Saudi Arabian government, the Iranian regime’s chief regional
rival. Hamas barely holds on to power in Gaza, one of the most
impoverished, densely populated and smallest slices of territory in
the world.

Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political party based in
Lebanon, functions as an Iranian proxy and has, in the past, been
linked to attacks on Americans: the group was implicated in the
1996 Khobar Towers attack; in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, Hezbollah
targeted the U.S. Marine Corps barracks and the U.S. Embassy annex,
respectively, killing 243 Americans, attempting to force a U.S.
military withdrawal. But unlike al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,
there’s not much today to suggest that Hamas’s,
Hezbollah’s or the Houthi rebels’ mission is attacking
United States.

Trump says Iran is “the world’s leading
state sponsor of terrorism,” while Sen. John McCain warns that, “A web of Iranian
proxies” threatens the “stability, freedom of
navigation and the territory of our partners and allies.”
Even though the Iran deal deliberately disaggregated Iran’s
support for these groups from the issue of its nuclear ambitions,
Trump has heaped the issues together rhetorically to argue that he
has no choice but to tear the deal up.

Not only does that obfuscate the aim of the deal, but it serves
to obscure the fact that the United States looks away as Iran’s
rivals engage in behavior that is similar, or worse, than Iran’s.
For several years now, the Saudis, with American support, have relentlessly bombed
Yemen in a campaign against the Houthis that has resulted in a
humanitarian crisis. In addition to being
investigated by the United Nations for war
crimes, one of the consequences of the Saudi’s military campaign
has been to bolster the position of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in
Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi actions have had
greater negative impact on U.S. interests, in terms of regional
destabilization, intensification of a proxy war and the expansion
of al-Qaeda, than Iran’s support for the Houthis.

In contrast to the regional agendas of Hamas and Hezbollah, the
Saudis have long been implicated in promoting and exactly the kinds of Sunni militant groups that try to target the
U.S.: the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups
boosted by the Saudis have perpetrated more than 94 percent of deaths caused by Islamic
terrorism since 2001.

If we can tolerate such behavior from an ally such as Saudi
Arabia, surely Iran’s support for its proxies is a poor
excuse for scuttling an agreement that effectively restrains an
Iranian nuclear weapons program.

According to the Center for Strategic & International
Studies, Iran is not
known to possess
and reportedly does not seek, missiles that can
reach U.S. territory. The Pentagon, as well as the U.S. Institute
of Peace, have repeatedly assessed in recent years that Iran’s military
posture is defensive in nature. Earlier this year, with respect to
Iran, Sen. Tom Cotton said, “I don’t see how anyone can
say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic
despotism.” Presumably, though, Cotton makes an exception for
the despotic, theocratic regime in Riyadh that enjoys bipartisan
Washington support.

At any rate, Iran is profoundly unlikely to attack the United
States. America possesses an overwhelming nuclear deterrent; and we
remain the world’s largest economy, with a GDP 50 times that of Iran. Iran’s annual
military spending is around 5 percent of ours and 9 percent of their region’s total. Iran
has a large army — around a half million troops — but
can’t meaningfully project power beyond the Middle East.

Indeed, Iran’s regional behaviors are only a threat to the
United States to the extent that we continue to insist on meddling
unnecessarily in a region whose strategic importance has been
overstated for decades. We have thousands of troops and multiple
bases in the region, and we’ve been in a constant state of war there for years with
little to show for it. The prevailing strategic rationales for
America’s excessive over-involvement in the Middle East —
defending Israel, fighting terrorism and protecting the free flow
of oil — don’t even come close to justifying the costs of
pursuing them.

Even if Iran challenges other regional powers, that’s not a
reason to get rid of a deal that prevents it from gaining nuclear
weapons. It makes nonproliferation a more crucial security priority
than ever.

Abandoning the nuclear deal doesn’t make Israel any safer:
Most of Israel’s military and intelligence community agrees that facing an Iran with a nuclear
program under tight inspections and limitations is better than
facing an Iran with an expanding nuclear program hidden from
international monitors. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, we’re
applying a double standard. And when it comes to directly
safeguarding U.S. security, we’re safer when we don’t elect to adopt the region’s
problems as our own.

John Glaser is
director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.