That last dichotomy was false at the time of the JCPOA’s signing, and it remains so today. The threat of U.S. military action against Iran, though never taken seriously in the Middle East, proved effective in swaying American public opinion. But a massive invasion and occupation was never the model for confronting Iran. The precedents, rather, were the surgical missile and aerial strikes launched by President Ronald Reagan against Libya and by President Bill Clinton in Sudan. As Israel’s ambassador in Washington in 2012, I often heard then–Israeli Defense Minister—now peace-camp leader—Ehud Barak assure American policy makers that the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites would last no longer than one or two days, and involve minimal risk to U.S. forces. “What are you afraid of?” he asked.
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The answer, according to JCPOA proponents, is terror. Striking or even sanctioning Iran, the Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams recently wrote in The New York Times, “will only lead to greater ‘malign behavior’ on the part of Iran in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.” In other words, Iran must be bribed to act less monstrously. This is the same Iran that has launched cyberattacks against the United States, made millions smuggling drugs into America, and threatened international oil shipments in the Gulf. This is the same Iran that sought to assassinate me—when I served as the Israeli ambassador—and my Saudi counterpart in Washington, D.C. And it is the same Iran that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Lebanon and Iraq, and that—after the signing of the JCPOA—captured and humiliated U.S. Navy sailors. The question is not what threats Iran will pose if its aggression is resisted, but rather the destruction the country will cause if it is not.
In theory, negotiations offer the best way forward. They could resolve Europe’s contradictory policy of backing a nuclear deal that helps fund the ethnic cleansing of Syria and bankrolls the Assad regime that Europe sanctions. For Israelis and Arabs, especially, talks with Iran stand to replace a deal concluded duplicitously behind our backs with an existential enemy, in disregard for the tenets of Shiite Islam, and with no thought whatsoever for the future security of the Middle East. And diplomacy is better than a conflict in which we, and not the West, are likely to be Iran’s first targets.
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But if diplomacy is to succeed, it must be backed by punishing sanctions and a credible military threat. Indeed, the more credible the threat, the less chance it will have to be used or that the United States will be dragged into any number of Iranian-fueled conflicts. Only when confronted with the choice between pursuing their aggression and risking economic ruin, threatening global security and facing armed action, will Iranian rulers forfeit their nuclear program and their dreams of empire. Only then will our region, and ultimately the world, be safer.