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Iran's bad behavior leaves Trump with just one choice

Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Pool | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Every day, it seems like Iran is provoking the U.S. with another incident. Just Monday, Iranian gun boats harassed yet another U.S. naval vessel. And Saturday, the Iranians conducted a provocative, and possibly illegal, test of a Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air, laser-guided missile defense system. On our side, President Donald Trump has made some public promises to get tougher on Iran.

So are we headed for a direct shooting war with Tehran? And if we're not going to war, what on earth will work when it comes to dealing with this country?

First off, let's look at the history so everybody understands the dynamics here. We've sadly been in a bloody and costly cold war with Iran for about 40 years, beginning in 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and the Iranian hostage crisis began. Since then, thousands have died in terrorist attacks carried out by Iran's proxies including Hezbollah, the U.S. military responses to them and U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. And billions have been spent.

Moreover, the Pentagon believes that Iran is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Armor piercing IED bombs supplied to Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban were the biggest weapons, but there was other military aid from Tehran that led to American deaths. According to Daily Beast Senior Editor Michael Weiss, it got so bad in 2007 that General David Petraeus wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying he was about to tell President George W. Bush that the U.S. was already in a shooting war with Iran.

"The odds of hostilities boiling over into something more dangerous have always been high. And one question you never want to ask is: "How much worse could it get?" Because when it comes to two heavily armed countries like Iran and the U.S., the answer could be very ugly."

But here's the thing: The Iranians always seem to back off just before the potential boiling point that would lead to a shooting war. And so does the United States. We remain bitter enemies, but direct fighting never happens.

Military and diplomatic expert David Crist says relations between our two countries have been in a "gray zone" between peace and war throughout that 38 year period. His book, "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran," shows how none of the recent Trump administration actions and statements are really new. Crist says new presidents almost always talk tough about Iran at the start of their administrations, and then back down. He expects President Trump to do the same.

But there was one president who bucked that trend. The Obama administration wasn't even in office yet when it started to make friendly diplomatic overtures to Tehran. Those efforts culminated in the nuclear deal which freed up and sent many billions of dollars back to Tehran. The result, as President Trump recently tweeted and many Middle East experts agree, is that Iran hasn't been this strong in many years. The Obama administration's hopes that getting Tehran more into the international economy by reducing the sanctions has so far not led to less Iranian belligerence in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen.

So where does that leave us? Eight years of being "nicer" hasn't worked and nobody thinks direct military conflict will work. The answer may be frustrating, but it's the only option: Containment.

And that's the part of the Trump strategy that's not getting enough attention. With his re-imposing of some of the old sanctions, President Trump is simply employing the classic A/B testing regime. The "A" of making nicer with Iran doesn't seem to have worked, so let's go back to the "B" of imposing new sanctions, calling the U.N. into an emergency session to address the Iranian missile test, and even having now-former NSA chief Mike Flynn make those public threats about putting Iran "on notice." And Iran is of course included among the six nations still a part of the new White House executive order banning immigration and travel into the U.S. from those countries. This switch from "A" to "B" was best embodied by President Trump's tweet where he compared his tougher stance to how "kind" President Obama had been to the Iranians.

As bad as Iran has acted on the world stage since 1979, its nefarious reach was significantly muted for decades by the sanctions and their economic effect. President Obama's release of massive cash back to the Mullahs means it will take a lot longer for new sanctions to achieve the same effect. So too is the fact that European nations are more brazenly doing business in Iran right now. But President Trump's moves, especially singling out more individuals for sanctions, are a good start.

The U.S. and the other Western powers have proved time and again that they cannot "fix" regimes like Iran and Syria unless they topple them completely, and then what is left is often just as bad. So, beyond launching a direct war where millions will likely be killed, there's not much more America can do than impose sanctions and talk as tough as we can. That means the terror will continue, the human rights violations will continue, the carnage will continue. But all-out war won't happen. It's a lousy pair of choices, but containment is the only one that makes sense.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of and depressed about in our relationship with Tehran. But compared to what's already been lost on both sides, "tougher talk" is really not one of them. The Obama team has effectively made containment much harder to achieve, but it remains the most likely path President Trump will pursue.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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