Iranian soldiers march during an annual military parade. (Photo by AFP)

The Iran Delusion

Years of U.S. appeasement have failed. It’s time for a dramatic change of course.

“One night. That’s all it would take. One night, and your setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan will vanish!” So Ehud Barak exhorted the national security adviser of the United States and his senior staff. The year was 2010, Barack Obama was president, and Barak, formerly IDF head and prime minister, was serving as Israel’s defense minister. We were seated around a table in Washington, sipping coffee and chatting casually about Iran. My job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States was to listen attentively as Barak spoke, but what he was saying surprised me—and shocked our American hosts. 

“One night of bombing by your B1s and B2s, and the Iranian nuclear problem disappears!”

Later a bitter opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an outspoken advocate for peace, Barak back then endorsed Netanyahu’s policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, by military means if necessary. But the Israeli air force, based largely on tactical fighters of limited range and payloads, lacked the strategic bombers able to carry the 30,000-pound bunker busters. America had that capability—and more—but adamantly refused to use it.

Demoralized by its unsuccessful post-9/11 wars, the American public opposed further foreign entanglements, especially in the Middle East. The Obama administration repeatedly warned that, in order to stop Iran’s nuclearization, “all options are on the table, including a military option.” Unfortunately, no one in the Middle East, above all the Iranians, took the threat seriously. Only the American public, disingenuously told that the sole alternative to diplomacy was war, believed it. 

The dichotomy was false. The alternative to war was harder diplomacy backed by crushing sanctions and a credible military threat, but the White House balked at doing both. Instead, it sought to ignore outrageous Iranian crimes—including an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador and me in downtown Washington, D.C.—and to treat Tehran respectfully. Vast economic inducements were also proffered to encourage Iran to become, as the president called it, a “responsible regional power.” 

Behind this policy lay a fundamental shift in America’s worldview. This held that, for decades, the U.S. had backed the wrong horses in the Middle East. The Israelis received America’s aid then spit in its face by building West Bank settlements, and the Saudis responded to American largesse by toppling the Twin Towers. But another nation existed with a pro-American population and an expanding regional influence—so the argument ran. Accordingly, the U.S. should shift its support for the Jewish State and the Sunnis to the strong horse of Shiite Iran. The only obstacle was Iran’s pesky nuclear program, but once that was contained America could escape the Middle East quicksand for the more pressing terrain of Asia.

The Israelis thought this theory insane. The Bush administration, we thought, had been tragically wrong in identifying Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the principal threat to American security rather than the Islamic Republic of Iran, and now the Obama White House was compounding that mistake by believing that Iran could be paid to abandon its jihadist theology. The ayatollahs would interpret as weakness any respect America showed them and use all its economic incentives to finance terror. For a veteran warrior like Ehud Barak, there was only one way to stop Iran from nuclearization, and it would take less than a single night.

“You could bomb from 50,000 feet,” he assured the Americans. “Nothing in Iran’s arsenal can shoot that high. You could destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities without interference or fear of losing a single plane.” He slapped the table brusquely, worrying our coffee cups and making the Americans flinch. “One hour of bombing and it’s over!”

Leaving the flummoxed Americans, the defense minister and I went to dinner. I suggested to him that, barring a major provocation from Iran, the U.S. would never act. “What they’d need is a Dirty Harry Moment,” I said.

Barak looked nonplussed. “Dirty Harry?” He’d never heard of him.

I told him about the hard-nosed detective, ‘Dirty Harry,’ played by Clint Eastwood. “And, of course, you know Dirty Harry’s famous line?”

He didn’t. So, I called over a young waiter and asked him, “What does Dirty Harry say?”

The waiter, complete with a gravelly Eastwood rasp, immediately replied, and Barak broke out laughing. 

“Go ahead,” he roared. “Make my day!”

America’s Dirty Harry moment with Iran never materialized, though, and five years later, the Obama administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iranian nuclear deal. Israelis watched, cringing, as international leaders beamed beside the foreign minister of a jihadist country that denied the Holocaust and openly threatened a new one. 

International leaders pose for pictures in Vienna after signing the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

While Washington claimed that the JCPOA would block Iran’s path to the bomb, Israeli leaders feared that the deal, which expired after seven years, would result in a fabulously wealthy, nuclear-armed Iran. A few years passed and Israel’s predictions tragically proved right. Instead of investing in schools and hospitals, Iran spent the JCPOA’s windfall on rockets and terror cells. Its hegemony spread over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iranian proxies—Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq—surrounded Israel with many tens of thousands of rockets. America’s hopes to transform Iran into a “responsible power” had clearly failed.

Understandably, then, Israelis were relieved when the next president, Donald Trump, withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran. Tehran’s empire, along with its economy, shrunk. But the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 elections effectively reversed that process. The new administration pledged to restore the JCPOA, signaling to the Iranians that they no longer had anything to fear by grossly violating its terms. If President Obama pledged to keep all options, including a military option, on the table, President Biden’s table held all possible options except the military.

Over the next two years, while Washington worked assiduously to renegotiate the deal, even appointing an avowedly pro-Iranian mediator in Robert Malley, Iran enriched enough uranium to make several bombs and greatly expanded its terror network. Israeli and Saudi leaders were persona non grata in the White House, but there seemed no act of aggression that Iran could mount against America’s allies, no oppression of its own people, that would deter the administration from its path. Russia could buy Iranian drones to kill Ukrainians and China could forge strategic ties with Tehran; still the door to U.S.-Iranian reconciliation remained open. There would be no Dirty Harry moment.

That is, until October 7. The heinous attacks of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad—the first funded and trained, and the second wholly owned and operated by Iran—exposed America’s folly. The previous month, The Wall Street Journal reported, Iran had trained 500 Hamas terrorists in specialized combat tactics. Israeli sources reported that senior Iranian and Hamas leaders met four times in 2023 and, in between, maintained close communications. 

Captured by the IDF, a terrorist commander purportedly confessed that the attack was postponed from Passover to close to Yom Kippur in order to give Iran time to conclude the agreement with the White House to exchange $6 billion in return for six U.S. citizens held in Iranian jails.

But money alone did not determine the attack’s timing. Rather, it was a belated American attempt to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This presented the Iranians with the specter of a robust Riyadh-Jerusalem front and, even more threatening, a Saudi nuclear program. Israel, the ayatollahs saw, was internally divided, and America politically paralyzed. To allay its fears and take advantage of its enemies’ weakness, Iran needed a little Middle Eastern war.

Only the war hasn’t turned out to be quite so little. Within days of its outbreak, President Biden went against the bipartisan isolationist grain by dispatching two carrier strike forces to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The armadas served to warn Iran and its proxies, above all Hezbollah with its 150,000 rockets, from entering the fray, though Iran was not fully deterred. While Hezbollah launched cross-border attacks into Israel, and Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis fired missiles and drones at Eilat, pro-Iranian militias repeatedly shelled U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq. If there was ever a Dirty Harry moment in the Middle East, this was it. Iran pulled the trigger, but it did not make America’s day.

The absence of American responses to Iranian assaults guarantees that Tehran will keep pulling the trigger. In dealing with the ayatollahs, the U.S. made the same mistake that Israel made regarding Hamas, hoping that jihadis could be paid to abandon their vision of first regional and then global conquest. Nor can the mere threat of massive retaliation, not backed by actual force, deter them. As my old professor, the late Bernard Lewis, used to assure me: “Mutually assured deterrence for the Iranian regime is not deterrence, but an incentive.” Iran will continue to ramp up its attacks against American assets in the Middle East and to sic its proxies on Israel. 

Its support for terror worldwide will escalate. 

Israel admitted the error of its misconception about Hamas, and it’s time for America to follow suit about Iran. It was wrong to keep allies at arm’s length and supremely wrong to bolster Iran’s influence both in the Middle East and beyond. It was foolhardy to think that an appeased Iran would allow the U.S. to detach itself from the region; on the contrary, a coddled Iran only dragged it back in. The belief that America, Israel, and other friendly states could grapple with Iran’s terrorist tentacles while leaving the leviathan unscathed was misguided. Admit, finally, that as long as Iran remains unvanquished, the next war and the next are inevitable, culminating in a nuclear showdown.

Fessing up errors is never easy, especially for leaders. Especially in the United States, where no one resigned after the Pearl Harbor attack or after 9/11. But Joe Biden has proven himself no ordinary leader. His courage in the face of domestic criticism, his willingness in an election year to defy parts of his own party, is immense. Israel and the Jewish people will always cherish him. Greater bravery yet, though, will be required to say, “We got it wrong and from now on we’re going to get it right.” America and the world cannot afford to live with an Iran at nuclear threshold capacity, an Iran that augments Russia’s killing machine and trades oil for Chinese arms. America, Biden must say, will no longer countenance a country that funds, trains, and encourages terrorist bands to commit mass murder and ignite an entire region—and quite possibly the world—afire.

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Back in 2010, after our dinner, Ehud Barak couldn’t stop laughing. “Pull the trigger, make my day!” he kept chuckling. What exactly about Clint Eastwood’s line so tickled the defense minister was a mystery to me, though I politely chuckled along. Inside, though, I was saddened by the fact that, no matter how unambiguous the pretext, the United States would never attack Iran. Iran could pull trigger after trigger and never once make America’s day.

President Biden can change all that. He can remove Iran’s sword of Damocles from above the free world’s head and send a message of American resilience to Tehran, Beijing, and the Kremlin. The next time Iranian stand-ins fire rockets at American bases or steer a suicide speedboat at a U.S. Navy ship, the president must be ready. He must seize the Dirty Harry moment.

Michael Oren was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a Knesset member, and a deputy minister of diplomacy in the prime minister’s office. For more of his writing on Israel visit his Substack, Clarity, where a version of this essay first appeared.

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