As the U.S. campaign season wears on, both Republicans and Democrats are pledging to stay tough on Iran. Such promises aren’t new. Last summer, as the Barack Obama administration unveiled its nuclear agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured skeptics that the United States would sustain essential sanctions that punish Tehran for its aid to terrorists, regional aggression, and human rights abuses. For her part, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has echoed Kerry’s determination to hold Iran accountable for its malevolent non-nuclear behavior.
But Clinton and Kerry’s position contains a crippling contradiction. Washington can either accommodate or confront the clerical regime. It can’t do both. And confrontation is made difficult, if not impossible, by the nuclear agreement and a war-weary public that is eager to be free of the Middle East.
In the year since the nuclear agreement was concluded, Tehran has continued its development of long-range ballistic missiles, a historic signpost of a state with atomic weapons ambitions. The regime hasn’t cut its leash on the Iraqi government; Iranian Revolutionary Guards dictate Baghdad’s strategies against the Islamic State (ISIS) and encourage a hardline approach toward Iraqi Sunnis. And Tehran has ensured the survival and success of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war machine, to the point that even Washington has become eager to dispense with the mantra “Assad must go.” Syria, after all, is where the United States’ redlines go to die.
The Gulf is simmering with Iranian intrigue. Tehran is busy fortifying Shia groups in Yemen and exploiting widespread anger against the Sunni princely class. Gulf Arab internal security services are probably not lying when they tell of increasing Iranian covert aid to violent radicals, as they have to both domestic audiences and international interlocutors. According to the State Department, moreover, terrorism remains very much an instrument of Tehran’s statecraft.
And yet Kerry has undertaken a tin-cup mission of sorts, imploring European banks to process Iran’s financial transactions
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