The Islamic Revolution vs. Donald Trump

Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei are more influential today than at any time since 1979.

Editor's Note: We are pleased to bring you this comprehensive and authoritative two-part analysis of Donald Trump and Iran, written by Reuel Marc Gerecht. Gerecht is a widely published author, with regular contributions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic and The Weekly Standard. He's a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and one of the country's leading experts on Iran and its Islamic revolution. The first part, below, examines the incentives the Iranian regime has to continue its confrontational approach to the United States and President Donald Trump. In the second installment, “The Fallout,” Gerecht looks at the death of Qassem Suleimani, the regime’s internal challenges, the consequences of the Obama nuclear deal, and what we might expect from the coming collision with the Islamic Republic.

Part I: The Coming Collision

The Islamic revolution recently celebrated its 41st birthday. The upheaval, especially the hostage-taking and the failed attempt to rescue American diplomats, may have cost Jimmy Carter the election in 1980. In 2020 the Islamic Republic may already be trying to enter the presidential campaign by challenging Donald Trump in Iraq and through its nuclear ambitions. After slowly pushing forward the atomic program beyond the confines of Barack Obama’s now defunct nuclear deal, the clerical regime is advancing more vigorously; another murderous assault upon Americans, via Iran’s Iraqi proxies, just happened. Given the president’s determination to keep maximum economic pressure on Iran, more attacks are surely coming.  

If Ayatollah Khamenei wants to try to bring the Democrats to power, and he believes that challenging Donald Trump is the best way to weaken his chances of victory, then it’s a near certainty that the supreme leader is going to attack something more significant than what he has before November. President Hassan Rouhani’s and foreign minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif’s extraordinary effort to engage and bend U.S. and European officials to their goals ultimately failed because of the unexpected election of Trump, but the Iranian political elite became much more attuned to U.S. politics because of the nuclear negotiations.  Where once Khamenei was an inattentive, bipartisan hater of America, he became more nuanced in his contempt for Democrats and Republicans. The Iranian regime’s understanding of how American politics function has improved a lot.  

Also, the coronavirus has hit Iran hard. If the regime senses that its deceit and ineptitude in handling the malady could cause civil unrest once people can again safely gather, it’s not unlikely that the regime will strike Americans in the hope of recapturing the ardent emotions vented during the massive funeral processions for Qassem Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander killed in Baghdad in January by a U.S. drone. Khamenei’s druthers are to go bold. Numerous factors are coming together to superheat the 41-year-old struggle between the Islamic Republic and the United States over the next eight months. But the most important factor by far is the supreme leader—his unrelenting conspiratorial hatred of the United States, his particular distaste for Trump, and his determination to preserve his impressive accomplishments. 

Khamenei is prideful. He has maintained the legacy of the theocracy’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, and, despite enormous resistance from his compatriots, kept the revolution from sliding into Thermidor. Khamenei has thwarted every attempt to reform the Islamic fundamentals of the state. He has confronted massive pro-democracy street demonstrations, as large as those that brought down the shah, and overcome them. He has also bent the Iranian senior clergy, which had little respect for him when he became supreme leader in 1989, to his will. He has outmaneuvered his rivals and advanced his men among the ruling ulama, the intelligence service, and the Revolutionary Guards, the theocracy’s praetorians. VIP mullahs and guardsmen hold vast wealth and power and yet haven’t become seditious. A student of European literature, a poet manqué who has tormented and likely killed dissident poets, Khamenei is capable of promoting men of widely differing scruples and religiosity. 

The Islamic Republic is more influential today than at any time since 1979. Most of his countrymen may have zero respect for him as a divine, but Khamenei, with the indispensable assistance of Suleimani, successfully oversaw the creation of foreign Shiite militias throughout the Middle East, subjugated the Shiite Iraqi elite and gained de facto control of Shiism’s holiest shrine cities. Khamenei held firm in Syria when it appeared the Allawi government of Bashar al-Assad was going down. A Sunni victory in Syria could have been catastrophic for the clerical regime in Lebanon and Iraq. Adverse repercussions at home could have been substantial. The regime’s resolve enabled Russia’s decisive entry into the conflict in 2015. 

And, perhaps above all else, Khamenei humbled the United States. No factor was more important in tormenting Americans in Iraq than the Iranian. Tehran provisioned and sometimes captained a wide array of militant Shiite groups attacking American soldiers. These forces were defeated or beaten into quiescence by George W. Bush’s “surge” from 2006–2008, but deep, lasting damage was done to America’s psyche. Barack Obama’s election in 2008; his calamitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011; the rampant anti-war and isolationist sentiments on both the American left and right; Donald Trump’s political rise; the bipartisan indifference to Iranian and Russian imperialism that in Syria watched hundreds of thousands of civilians perish, millions put to flight, the foundation of the European Union crack, and right-wing populism rise—all happened in part because of Khamenei’s determination to make America bleed in Iraq. For this achievement alone, the cleric is one of the most consequential rulers in the Middle East since World War II. Only his predecessor may have had a greater global impact. 

And yet Khamenei has been discombobulated by Trump. The cleric initially saw something in the New Yorker to inspire hope: His “endless wars” rhetoric suggested that America might really be departing the Middle East, that the retrenchment Obama started might become a full-on retreat. Trump’s revocation of the nuclear agreement, re-imposition of punishing sanctions, and killing of Suleimani—the commander of the Quds Force, the special-forces/terrorist-liaison branch of the Guard Corps, who’d become a son to the supreme leader—dashed Khamenei’s hope that the Great Satan was a spent force. 

And the supreme leader has surely noted that since Trump took office he has had to deal with nearly continuous internal protests, some of them regime-threatening. There is an intensity to Khamenei’s distaste for Trump that may spring from surprise: The supreme leader, who has been a good judge of men and taken down his betters, probably didn’t envision Trump as a catalyst for nation-wide protests against theocracy. Khamenei may well have expected renewed U.S. sanctions to give Iranians, to quote the prediction of Philip Gordon, the former Middle East coordinator on Obama’s National Security Council, “a reason to rally to — rather than work against — the government they might otherwise despise.” Trump will likely prove pivotal for the Islamic Republic: If the clerical regime makes it through his presidency, then the American threat to Iran’s theocracy may well be over.  

Democrats have made the Iran issue, and Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a partisan litmus test. There’s little chance that the Democrats, if they win in November, can revive a nuclear agreement since the clerical regime has moved on. Tehran is far wiser about the limitations and inherent turbulence of American politics and the utility of an executive agreement, like the JCPOA, and the United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 supposedly ratifying it. It would take an isolationist–Rand Paul–Tucker Carlson takeover of the Republican Party for Republican senators to agree to another Democrat-delivered nuclear accord with the clerical regime. Tribal pride, let alone the likely conditions of any such agreement, would make a binding treaty with Iran’s theocracy impossible. And only a Senate-ratified treaty would give large corporations, especially energy firms, the needed sense of normalcy and predictability for making major investments in the Islamic Republic. 

And the clerical regime may well expect that the next Democratic president might just give up. Joe Biden didn’t reveal a lot of spine on the Iraq War. Biden initially backed the invasion; he wanted to throw in the towel early. His proposal for a confessional/ethnic division of the country, beyond making no historical and geographical sense, was really a cover for a U.S. withdrawal. And Biden preferred a more cautious, patient approach in the hunt for Osama bin Laden than the SEAL-team raid that killed the Al-Qaeda leader.  Given the disquiet and palpable fear that almost all Washington Democrats evinced after Trump took out Suleimani, it’s increasingly hard to imagine a Democratic president telling Tehran in the prelude to any new negotiations that “all options are on the table.” A Democratic president would, more likely, just try to “engage” the Iranian regime through substantial sanctions relief before any nuclear talks started, which is essentially what Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, the tandem who conducted the secret diplomacy in Oman in 2012, which kicked off Obama’s nuclear diplomacy, recommended last October

And as Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, a new nuclear deal wouldn’t align now with Tehran’s nuclear progress. In 2012 the clerical regime was years away from developing advanced centrifuges, which require small cascades and are easily concealed. That’s not true today. Ali Salehi, an MIT Ph.D. in nuclear engineering who heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, led the technical discussions at the nuclear talks. Unfailingly loyal to the supreme leader, not averse to highlighting his cleverness, and determined to push the development of more advanced centrifuges, Salehi backed the JCPOA precisely because it overlapped well with the development of higher velocity machines, which the agreement allows. In 2015 Iranian nuclear engineers needed about eight years; the accord granted an eight-year provision for the construction of advanced centrifuges. Salehi is pretty sanguine now about Iran’s capacity to make considerable progress quickly. He may be lying about getting closer to a take-off point, but when it comes to verifiable technical achievements, and reflections on the Islamic Republic’s accomplishments, he’s not been particularly mendacious. A new agreement, which would be pointless unless it freezes the development of high-velocity centrifuges, wouldn’t be deemed by Iran’s physicists and engineers as helpful. 

No new deal, billions of dollars in sanctions relief, no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s oil sales, occasional meetings among U.S., European, and Iranian diplomats, and adamant opposition to the elongation of any limitations on Tehran’s ability to purchase advanced weaponry (the clerical regime can legally purchase heavy weaponry and advanced fighters in October 2020 per UNSCR 2231) mightbe acceptable to the supreme leader. Probably not much more. 

No Diplomatic Exit

If Khamenei were more clever than principled, he would, of course, engage Trump and see whether the American’s love of deal-making could lead him to substantial compromises, most importantly, splitting the nuclear question from Iranian imperialism and again allowing short sunset clauses, which would grant the Islamic Republic a massive nuclear-weapons infrastructure down the road. If Khamenei were to commit to talks, the vast inertia of Washington’s arms-control community would come into play. The isolationist right and its amplifiers on Fox would cheer. And a telephone call from Rouhani might just tweak the president’s vainglory. It would, however, entail for Khamenei and many other VIP Iranians a massive loss of face.  

The supreme leader, who has never been cracked up about his country’s dependence upon oil and how that commodity ties Iran to Western companies, markets, and the dollar and opens the country to coercion (first Great Britain and then the United States have used sanctions to punishing effect), can seem almost relieved that Trump’s actions have obliged greater self-reliance and industry. Khamenei didn’t try to prevent President Akbar Hashemi–Rafsanjani’s efforts in the 1990s to bring in Western commerce and cash to fuel the Islamic Republic’s recovery from the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988); he accepted, if with some reservation, Rouhani’s argument that the clerical regime with the JCPOA could simultaneously achieve its nuclear aspirations, propel greater economic growth, and become a more modern and powerful Islamist state. Although always concerned about insidious Western penetration and perfidy, Khamenei didn’t let his cultural paranoia and autarkist instincts get the better of him. The odds are poor he would do so again.  

And Khamenei’s resilience has an economic basis, too. Washington’s sanctions have, so far, barely dented the non-oil component of Iran’s economy. Non-oil exports are still bringing in around $40 billion per year (the big three are petrochemicals, distillates, and metals), and Tehran’s accessible foreign-currency reserves may be well above the $10 billion figure that the State Department cites as a hopeful datum signaling an imminent hard-currency meltdown. The Islamic Republic’s vast welfare state, which is essential for maintaining whatever loyalty the clerical regime has among the lower classes, burns cash. Yet the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards certainly have sufficient will, lethal intent, and likely sufficient funds to stave off financial Armageddon, at least for a few years. 

The economic contraction brought on by the coronavirus may change these calculations. Less advanced economies really don’t have the option of following Rouhani’s mandan dar manzel (“stay at home”) advice. This may mean Iran is even more ravaged. It may also mean the economy adjusts, Iranians bury their dead and move on. Khamenei sermonized that this is really the only sensible course of action for his country. It’s wiser if Washington assumes that COVID-19 won’t crack the country. Sanctions against Iranian exports and imports need to become more potent, both in scope and enforcement, for the administration’s theorizing about a hard-currency meltdown paralyzing the clerical regime to be plausible. And getting the Europeans, who still have significant small- and medium-scale trade with Iran, to apply their own sanctions because of Tehran’s nuclear advance will be very challenging, especially while the coronavirus is spreading through the Old World. The clerical regime can import whatever medical supplies it wants through non-sanctioned Swiss channels. Western banks and European pharmaceutical companies, which know the Iranian market intimately, are well aware that the Trump administration has approved such transactions without reservation. But the optics of increasing sanctions on a country stricken with disease is surely too much for soft-power Europeans. Getting them to “snapback” all the pre-JCPOA U.N. sanctions against Iran, which the United States is, per the State Department lawyers who negotiated under Obama, legally entitled to do given Tehran’s violations of the JCPOA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would also be arduous, which likely explains why Foggy Bottom has been avoiding even trying. 

President Trump is only in the early stages of dealing with increasingly truculent mullahs. It’s not clear that he has the mettle—but after the killing of Suleimani, one has to presume that he might—to handle Khamenei’s murderous machinations likely coming our way. It’s unlikely that the Democrats have the will to handle the supreme leader’s bloody-minded obstinance. The Iraq War burned Biden. If he wanted to be more cautious about killing bin Laden, it’s difficult imagining him checkmating the supreme leader.  

As erratic as he can be, Trump probably can’t compromise much with Tehran on the nuclear question; it’s conceivable, depending on what Khamenei does, that he will even be bolder in trying to contain the clerical regime’s ambitions. The reasonable fear that many Iran hawks and conservatives had about Trump, that he would be inclined to cut a really bad deal with Tehran and label it “perfect,” seems much less likely after the death of Suleimani and the imposition of an ever-expanding array of sanctions. Even Trump is subject to momentum and gravity. For him to switch course now, to become more Obama than Obama, would reduce him to a laughing stock on an issue—the clerical regime’s 41-year knack for making the United States look weak—that deeply annoys the president.   The supreme leader could change this situation, by surrendering to talks without massive sanctions-relief, but the odds of that are near zero. Trump may not seek out new ways to punish the regime before November, fearing an escalation that may be politically adverse, but his Iran policy—just keep squeezing—seems set in stone, if for no other reason than Khamenei probably won’t give him any other choice.  

Supporters of the president, and just supporters of a tougher approach to the Islamic Republic, often air the view that if Khomeini could relent against Saddam Hussein and drink from the “poisoned chalice,” Khamenei, under severe economic pressure, could accept negotiations with Trump. This “realist” rendering of the clash between the United States and the Islamic Republic isn’t, however, compelling.  The clerical regime was on the verge of collapse in 1988: Hundreds of thousands had died, a million men had been maimed; Revolutionary Guard forces were coming undone; the regular army had cracked; children were fighting in the trenches; Iranian cities were wide open to Iraqi chemical-weapons attacks, which Saddam had demonstrated that he was prepared to undertake; Washington had sunk a good part of the Iranian navy and (accidentally) blown out of the air an Iranian civilian jet liner; and the mullahs had no allies offering weapons, cash, or even moral support in the United Nations. 

There is no indication today that the Revolutionary Guards have lost their mojo. Just the opposite. In November and December 2019, the Guards and the morals police, the Basij, the regime’s Brown Shirts, mowed down hundreds of demonstrators, who’d originally taken to the streets to protest a drop in gasoline subsidies. Security forces reportedly shot 400 protesters in just three days. Particular ferocity was used against the demonstrators in Iranian Kurdistan and the heavily Arab province of Ahvaz. It’s still impossible to confirm the reported figure of 1,500 dead. If that number is accurate, it’s a significant increase in the fallen from 2009, when Khamenei crushed the pro-democracy Green Movement, which put millions onto the streets of Tehran. Surely a big reason for the regime’s quick savagery last year is that the petrol demonstrations almost immediately turned into riots aimed at state institutions and the clergy, and in Ahvaz and Kurdistan, into armed encounters between oppressed, deeply embittered ethnic minorities and the security forces.  

During and after the 2009 suppression, Khamenei removed several senior Guard commanders, it appears for either refusing or failing to show the requisite severity. That hasn’t happened with the 2019 protests. The Guards’ leadership appears today more ideologically harmonious and ruthless. Khamenei appears harsher. In 2009 he allowed for a certain official remorse about the crackdown (the videoed shooting of the beautiful Neda Agha-Soltan and the verified stories of torture, including rape, of jailed protesters, some of whom were the children of the ruling class, shocked many); in 2019, Khamenei mocked the protesters for their revolutionary faithlessness. 

If the supreme leader were to make the concessions that the Trump administration has demanded, on the nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and regional aggression, including the support to radical Shiite militias and Sunnis throughout the Middle East, which would permanently shut down the clerical regime’s nuclear-weapons quest and ensure that the United States and Europe aren’t subsidizing Tehran’s imperialism, then he could well be toppled in a coup since Khamenei would have betrayed everything he has declared holy. In 1988 senior Revolutionary Guard commanders were begging for the war to end; when Rafsanjani, then the second most powerful cleric in Iran, and Khamenei, then the president, went to Khomeini to argue for a ceasefire and a de facto surrender, they represented a broad consensus within the ruling elite that war had to end quickly or the theocracy would collapse. In contrast, the supreme leader and the Guard generals today appear unified in taking a hard line towards their own citizens and the United States. 

Trump is obviously not a regime changer and doesn’t appear to care really whether Iranians, or foreigners anywhere, live in a democracy. Discussions about the causes of Islamic militancy or how to corral it (for example, through the ballot box), don’t appear to interest him in the slightest. But Trump’s willingness to take risks rivals Khamenei’s. And there is something about the Islamic Republic, perhaps rooted in memories of America being laid low in the embassy hostage crisis, that makes Trump at least qualify his view of the Muslim Middle East as a sandbox not worth the fight. It’s not inconceivable that as Khamenei approves more operations that kill Americans -- and given what’s already happened, that’s likely—in response Trump abandons his aversion to adopting a containment strategy. Depending on how bloody and ambitious Khamenei’s actions are, it’s conceivable that Congress could again even authorize covert action and allow for a larger, more assertive US military commitment in Syria.  Such a policy might bring serious pressure on Iran in the Persian Gulf and bleed the Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias in Syria through CIA-delivered military aid to Sunnis. A patient policy of regime change isn’t unthinkable.

Insufficient Dissuasion

Trump is currently caught in a contradictory situation: He has shocked the Iranian ruling elite with his strike against the Quds Force commander, the operational overlord of the Islamic Republic’s foreign adventures. Yet the president has diligently avoided any containment effort, which would constrain Iranian actions—except near Dayr az-Zor at the Syrian–Iraqi border, where U.S. troops still remain, blocking an Iranian “land bridge” between Iraq’s primary highway system and Syria’s. In the southern Middle East, the White House has refrained from making any direct, defensive commitment to the Sunni Gulf states or non-American shipping in the Persian Gulf, despite Iranian mining and missile attacks. More U.S. troops have been sent to the region, but it’s uncertain that President Trump would use them to defend foreigners. 

Such restraint surely made it more likely that Tehran would aggressively test the United States, which is exactly what happened before Suleimani’s death, when Iran-backed Shiite Iraqi militias repeatedly rocketed U.S. forces, eventually killing an American contractor. The president’s preference for such “strategic caution,” coupled with an aggressive use of sanctions, which has become Washington’s preferred coercive tool because it has allowed the United States to bring pressure without using armed force, makes it much more likely, however, that Khamenei will again target Westerners in the Middle East, including U.S. soldiers and civilians. As the diplomatic historian Robert Kagan has noted about U.S. actions toward Japan before Pearl Harbor: The United States did enough to anger the Japanese empire but not enough to intimidate it. Trump really annoys Khamenei, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the strike against Suleimani, as unexpected and shocking as it was, wasn’t enough to implant paralyzing fear. 

And American attacks against Iraqi Shiite militias tied to Iran aren’t likely to have any lingering dissuasive effect on the mullahs’ intentions and actions. A tit-for-tat game with these forces, where the administration refrains from striking Iran for the lethal actions of Shiite militias that Iran controls or subventions, will undermine the perception that Trump is willing to kill Iranians. For Trump to deter Tehran, he must strike the Revolutionary Guards directly. Jerusalem has fundamentally changed Iranian calculations and plans in the Levant by its continuous bombing of Iranian bases, vehicles, and personnel. According to Israeli defense and intelligence officials, Tehran had plans to open major Revolutionary Guard Corps bases in Syria; they have shelved them. What is striking and instructional is the significant damage and fatalities Israel has inflicted upon the clerical regime, and Khamenei’s understated response.  How Trump does what is required to deter, assuming he is willing to, given opposition in Congress, is an open question. A classic containment strategy against the Islamic Republic may require new legislation. It may be politically impossible.    

Continuing doubts about America’s commitment to the region will also likely encourage the clerical regime’s penchant for terrorism, particularly assassinations of dissident Iranian expatriates. The supreme leader greenlighted a terrorist attack against an Iranian opposition group outside Paris in June, 2018—a bombing operation that could have killed dozens, possibly hundreds, if Western European security services hadn’t thwarted it. The Iranian regime has never forsaken terrorism. There was a pause when the clerical reformer Mohammad Khatami unexpectedly won the presidential election in 1997 and flustered the ruling hierarchy, including the Ministry of Intelligence, which was then the primary agency for killing surreptitiously.  The attempted attack in Villepinte was bold and signaled, at a minimum, that Khamenei had grown bored with Europeans as counterweights to America.

And President Trump is unlikely to escape his bind: The more effective sanctions are against the Islamic Republic, and the administration’s unilateral measures have proven more costly to the clerical regime than combined U.S.-European-U.N. sanctions were in the lead up to the nuclear negotiations under Obama, the more likely it is that Khamenei decides to unleash more attacks against Americans, Europeans, and Sunni Gulf Arabs, which could oblige the White House to escalate, which Trump doesn’t want to do. Any American policy that actually tries to thwart the Iranian regime’s ambitions, which includes its three-decade effort to develop atomic arms, will risk war. Americans who judge the rightness of any policy by its risk of conflict are really saying that no policy that effectively challenges Iranian supremacy in the region is acceptable. This is essentially the position taken by the Obama administration; it was emphatically the stance taken by Senator Bernie Sanders and others on the left. 

And Khamenei has little to lose by being aggressive, especially if he doesn’t directly target Americans, since doing nothing leaves him in a losing status quo, where his economy slowly crashes, his people become angrier and possibly more rebellious, and the more religiously militant forces in his own society demand vengeance against Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.  Wounding the United States, driving back its physical and cultural presence in the Muslim Middle East, remains a raison d’être of the Islamic Republic; this is über true when the ruling mullahs and senior officers in the Guards feel the need to reassert their dominion at home. The supreme leader may not want a big head-on collision with Washington since the odds disfavor Iran so enormously and so much of the Islamic Republic’s leadership, especially in its domestic-security apparatus, would be prey to America’s high-tech weapons. But he is clearly willing to risk a lot, which was shown in his reprisal for Suleimani’s death.  The Iranian missiles used against the Ayn al-Assad base may have had primitive gyroscopes, but they easily could have done more than concussed American soldiers. And there were Americans all over the opposition gathering at Villepinte, including Rudy Giuliani; they, too, could have died if not for Western security measures. 

Fortunately, the Islamic Republic no longer has the capacity to launch suicide bombers/live-to-die assassins against its enemies: Iran’s and Lebanon’s more traditional “12ver” Shiite clergy recoiled from this practice in the 1990s, as it also vetoed women becoming agents of jihad a decade earlier. State-sponsored terrorism, either direct or through third parties—and ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles, openly claimed or camouflaged through proxies—is how the clerics prefer to respond when angry. The Islamic Republic’s capacity to inflict pain, vastly greater than Al-Qaeda’s or the Islamic State’s, has always been corralled by its understanding of American red lines. The Revolutionary Guards open fondness for jang-e namotaqaren, or asymmetrical warfare, grew out of their own conventional weakness and the need to dodge American might through clandestine or third-party actions. The common wisdom, for example, that Tehran would never invade Bahrain, a strategic gateway to the Arabian peninsula with its badly oppressed Shiite population, which Iran controlled in the 17th and 18th centuries, is questionable the moment the American naval base there closes. If Riyadh isn’t up to the task of checking Tehran, and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman did nothing after the Iranians droned and cruise-missiled the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in September, then Iran, armed openly by Russia, could rapidly and permanently change the region. The entire way we think the oil-rich Middle East functions, even after the retrenchment of Obama and Trump, is premised on sufficient countervailing U.S. force. Take it away and the inconceivable becomes thinkable. The Israeli Air Force just doesn’t have the dissuasive power. And the Europeans no longer matter. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and one of the country's leading experts on Iran and its Islamic revolution.

Handout photo of Ayatollah Khameini from Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Photograph of protesters by AFP/Getty Images.