The Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace over the weekend was reportedly designed in imitation of an American unmanned aircraft captured by Iran in 2011; at the time, the U.S neglected to destroy it, which could have prevented its reverse engineering. To Richard Goldberg, such failures to deter Tehran—this was only one of many during Barack Obama’s presidency—have helped create the current situation where Iran’s forces are stationed across the Middle East and in a position, for instance, to menace Israel. He urges Washington to reverse course:
Now is the time for President Trump to re-establish robust military deterrence toward Iranian expansionism in close collaboration with regional allies. His administration declared [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guard a terrorist entity in October, and he should target key Guard bases and weapons in Syria accordingly. Such an approach could help prevent a larger-scale conflict.
Iran’s leaders tend to avoid direct military confrontation against a superior military power. . . . Furthermore, the mullahs know that if they direct more money into extraterritorial operations, their economic and political situation at home will deteriorate. The Iranian people are already chanting, “Let go of Syria, think about us.” Raising the cost for Iran in Syria would exacerbate internal tensions.
Trump will certainly need to prepare for a range of potential responses from Iran, particularly via proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. But these proxy threats aren’t new—and the benefits far outweigh potential costs. First, Tehran’s strategic calculus would start to change, curtailing risk-taking in the region, enhancing security for U.S. allies over the long run and potentially changing regime behavior in other illicit activities. Second, a U.S. military deterrent would close the so-called “land bridge” that gives Iran an uninterrupted line of influence to the Mediterranean. And that deterrent would undergird Trump’s threats to exit the nuclear deal, which could dramatically increase the likelihood that attempts to fix the deal succeed while significantly reducing the risks of an Iranian escalation should he decide to nix it.
Finally, the United States would reclaim diplomatic leverage over Russia in Syria. If Vladimir Putin wants to maintain a long-term presence and to profit off the country’s reconstruction, he’ll have to clear Iranian forces out of Syria or America and its allies will do it for him.