Where Do We Go Now With Iran?
JNS.org – The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the longtime commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Quds Force, has profoundly changed the playing field between the United States and Iran. For the first time since 1988 — when Ronald Reagan responded to Iranian provocations in the Strait of Hormuz by sinking Iranian warships and destroying two oil platforms — tangible consequences were imposed on the regime.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameinei and the IRGC are now forced to revisit their decades-long assumption that America would not respond militarily to its nefarious behavior, and the United States needs to develop a strategy to take advantage of its newfound leverage.
As former Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman and former director at the National Security Council Franklin Miller wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “deterrence works only if the threats are credible … [Soleimani’s] death is the first time the regime has lost something of value in its conflict with the United States.”
We cannot let the proportional response of Iran fool us. The foundational core of the regime remains revolutionary and expansionist: Their goal remains ejecting the United States from the region and acquiring nuclear-weapons capabilities to become immune to regime change and dominate the region.
What is still open for debate is how to manage this unrepentant tiger going forward, especially with all Democratic candidates pledging to return to 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and remove Donald Trump’s sanctions, while the president might decide to remove all troops from Iraq.
Critics of the assassination seem to have forgotten that the recent Iranian attack on the US embassy in Baghdad itself was an act of war, directed by Soleimani. It can be argued the killing was or wasn’t strategically wise, but Trump was well within his rights to make that decision.
As international-law expert Alan Baker of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs said, “at any given moment, Soleimani was heavily involved in the planning and execution of massive acts of terror,” making him a legitimate target under international law
Trump used his post-assassination speech to emphasize that the Iranian nuclear program is still foremost in his mind. With foreign policy now at the center of partisan debates, how we deal with that reality going forward moves to the top of the list.
Steve Rabinowitz and Aaron Keyak, consultants to President Barack Obama in support of the nuclear deal, wrote “Obama’s will to reach across divides and engage with Iran also emboldened its moderates.”
Was Soleimani, the chief architect of Iran’s expansionist ambitions, more or less aggressive after the JCPOA, or did he perceive the president’s sanctions relief as appeasement, something to be taken advantage of? Let’s look at the facts.
Start with the claim that the JCPOA “emboldened its moderates.” What is the definition of a moderate in Iran?
It must be remembered that the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani was one of only six hard-line candidates out of more than 600 presidential aspirants to be allowed to run in the “election.” So the definition of a moderate for the last administration was a hard-line Islamist who appointed a smooth-talking English-speaking foreign minister, who manipulated and charmed his way into the heart of former Secretary of State John Kerry. Worse, the Obama administration never imposed any of the promised consequences after the nuclear deal in regard to Iran’s missile development, expansionism, human rights abuses, or terrorism.
Soleimani and Khamenei looked at the deal as a pathway to remove America from the region and solidify their control of the Shiite Crescent from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. Just 10 days after the deal was agreed to, Soleimani was in Moscow meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where they agreed to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One of the sad legacies of the Obama administration was indirectly funding the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Syria by empowering Soleimani with billions in new financial resources.
Most importantly, it must be remembered that the JCPOA gave Iran — a terror state — the right to enrich uranium, which was completely unnecessary and unprecedented if they only wanted nuclear energy. They could do what every other non-nuclear state that uses nuclear energy does: import low-enriched uranium from the United States, China, or Russia, under strict controls.
Going forward with Iran requires a reevaluation of what was conceded. A new agreement must fix the “no inspections at military sites” provision. We need to look at the new possibilities and perils in the post-Soleimani era. Trump’s seeming red line — the death of American — may have boxed him in. What happens if Iran mines the Strait of Hormuz, but no Americans are killed? It remains to be seen what the rules are to be.
The way forward — short of regime change by the Iranian people, which should be an American goal — is to lower the flames of confrontation in Iraq. Iran won’t stop making trouble in Iraq, as it wants it to become a vassal like Lebanon. American interests require a presence in Iraq with a small footprint, while reassuring the Iraqi Kurds that they don’t have to make a deal with Iran for survival.
Israel will continue to hit Iranian precision-guided missiles in Iraq being sent to militias in Syria and Lebanon. Will Iran use Israeli strikes that kill Iranians in Iraq as a pretext to attack American interests in Iraq?
If Trump has a second term, will he be comfortable with a small but effective American presence in the Middle East? And if a Democrat is our next president, will that administration move beyond the campaign rhetoric, and realize the JCPOA is comatose and unrevivable in its current form? Will they come to realize that a new Iran nuclear agreement that forever ends their nuclear-weapons program and incorporates constraints on their nefarious activities throughout the region is the only realistic choice for American security interests? The answers remain to be seen.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, and The Forward.