There Are Three Paths Forward for U.S.-Iran Relations. Only One Averts War | Opinion

As the worst pandemic in a century upends billions of lives and wipes out trillions of dollars, one thing has remained constant—the sorry state of U.S.-Iran relations. Of late, that has included the U.S. blocking an International Monetary Fund loan to Iran, Iranian ships becoming more belligerent in the Persian Gulf and bombastic tweets from President Donald Trump, which the Pentagon suggests amount to nothing new.

Now, there are three ways forward for U.S.-Iran relations.

One, as promoted in a recent treatise from Eric Edelman and Ray Takeyh at Foreign Affairs, is U.S.-orchestrated regime change.

Another is maintaining the status quo indefinitely, pursuing a "maximum pressure" campaign while skirmishing with Iran-linked forces in Iraq, Syria and beyond. The Trump administration's recently announced installation of new air defense systems in Iraq in response to Tehran's ballistic missile strike in January is a project of this model.

Third is the option we need: Reject outright any move toward U.S.-backed regime change or military intervention. Trade the failed maximum pressure approach for realistic diplomacy centered on working-level talks with meaningful concessions from both sides. Withdraw from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other conflicts in the Middle East, which distract from more pressing domestic concerns and heighten the chance of unwanted escalation with Iran. In short, pursue a foreign policy reliant on diplomacy, not coercion, and aimed toward peace, not domination.

The regime change option should never have been on the table, but it has been persistently popular in some corners of the U.S. foreign policy establishment for years. Ousted national security adviser John Bolton may be its most shameless barker, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is no stranger to the notion, even if he has somewhat tempered his rhetoric of late.

The Edelman-Takeyh article deserves credit for saying what many Iran hawks will not: that U.S.-forced regime change is their goal. But the reason that language is avoided is a good one. As Edelman and Takeyh write, it "conjures up images of the Iraq war, with the United States trapped in a quagmire of its own making." And so it should.

However, invading Iran would not be the same as the Iraq War—it would be worse by every measure. The risk isn't that Tehran could defeat the U.S. in a conventional military conquest but that it could bleed us dry with our largest, costliest forever war yet.

To be clear, the Foreign Affairs piece technically doesn't call for invasion. Its push is for regime change effected by doing "everything possible to weaken the government and strengthen those inside Iran who oppose it," including covert operations and further escalating the Trump administration's pressure campaign. This "regime change lite" is thus mostly an escalation of our second option, preserving the status quo, which amounts to permanent, low-grade warfare, never quite obnoxious enough to the American people to occasion mass protest but a steady source of casualties, debt-financed spending and needless hazard to U.S. security.

Trump Pompeo Iran
Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participate in a news briefing at the White House on March 20 in Washington, D.C. Pompeo responded to questioning about whether Iran was responsible for a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a British soldier. Alex Wong/Getty

Indeed, lack of explicit planning for invasion is no insurance against it. Maximum pressure has only succeeded at provoking Tehran to regional troublemaking in a desperate attempt to prove U.S. coercion won't work, and putting U.S. troops in harm's way always risks unintended consequences. With or without a formal strategy of attack, both our first two options steer the United States and Iran ever closer to open war.

The only way to steer away from war is to actively pursue peace. That requires recognizing the aggressive sanctions imposed under maximum pressure have failed to exact desired changes from Tehran while turning the Iranian public against us, especially during the novel coronavirus pandemic. And it requires a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy priorities: After nearly two decades of region-wide conflict in which we have lost much and gained little, the time has come to end these generational wars instead of expanding them to include Iran.

Stumbling toward further conflict by redoubling current missteps is no more defensible than outright invasion. Neither secures vital U.S. interests, which are already protected by an unparalleled deterrence capability. Both are dangerous obstructions to diplomacy and move us away from peace.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.