Alfonse D'Amato

On Iran, the U.S. should stay the course

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For decades now, the radical Islamic dictatorship of Iran has been a major supporter and exporter of terrorism. The Iranian ayatollahs who hold their nation in a fanatical grip are desperate to cling to power and spread their hateful ideology. They have financed terrorist groups like Hezbollah that threaten Israeli security; they have helped prop up the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and they have been behind the insurgent conflict in Yemen. In each case, they have sown the seeds of violence and discord.

Added to this dangerous mix has been the threat from Iran to develop nuclear weapons with which to further terrorize the world. The goal of the country’s leaders has been clear: to make Iran a nuclear power and thereby paralyze any effective measures against its aim to dominate the Middle East. The response from Western powers was the toothless nuclear accord that failed to even require adequate inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and gave the Iranian government billions of dollars in sanctions relief. The hope was that this appeasement would change its dangerous behavior, but the result has been that the ayatollahs became even more emboldened and aggressive in promoting terrorism across the Middle East.

What fundamentally changed the equation against Iran’s belligerence was President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the ineffective nuclear deal and impose “maximum pressure” against the Iranian government. Tough new sanctions included tightened financial and banking restrictions and a strict prohibition of the purchase of Iranian oil exports. The result has been a dramatic decline in the country’s oil export revenue, because its oil exports dropped by 80 percent.

The effect of this sanction pressure has been to significantly weaken Iran’s economy. Iran today is an economic basket case with a stagnant economy and high inflation. Its people — especially young Iranians — are restive and unsatisfied with their government. The old “Death to America” chants ring hollow for ordinary citizens struggling to scrape together a living in a failing economy.

For the country’s proxy terror groups like Hezbollah, the fall-off of financial support from Iran has been a major hit. Hezbollah’s military capabilities have been seriously eroded: its soldiers aren’t getting paid, crimping their enthusiasm to launch military strikes against Israel. And in Yemen there are signs that the Iranian-backed insurgency is looking for a way to end the conflict there.

Iran’s diminished war-making capacity has the potential to move the Middle East toward a more stable, peaceful future, but only if the U.S. and other nations stay the course with tightened economic and military pressure. While I believe that Trump doesn’t want war with Iran, I agree that the only way to change its behavior is to starve its treasury and contain its military aggression.

On that score, the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz prove the point. The evidence that Iran undertook these attacks is overwhelming. U.S. surveillance video clearly shows an Iranian gunboat removing an undetonated mine from one of the stricken tankers. These brazen actions, and Iran’s shooting down of an American drone aircraft over the strait’s shipping lanes, prove just how desperate Iran is to destabilize oil transport and weaken international resolve on the sanctions directed against it.

The result has been just the opposite. The international community is united in its defense of free navigation, and the oil tanker attacks had no effect on world oil prices. That should give Iran’s leaders real pause, because it shows that the old battle plan of interfering with oil shipments is no longer workable. The world today is awash in oil, and prices are at historic lows.

Which leads me to the conclusion that the single biggest card the U.S. can play in the Middle East these days is that we are no longer dependent on Middle East oil. The best assurance of our security is our energy independence. We should be pumping as much American oil and gas as we can find. Building the pipelines and refining capacity to handle this oil is in America’s strategic interest.

And now that we don’t have to worry about oil from an unstable region of the world, the U.S. is in the strongest position to influence events there. Trump is right to keep the pressure on Iran to give up its export of terror and its dangerous nuclear ambitions. Iran must decide between conflict it cannot ultimately win and peace, and prosperity its people desperately need.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.