It is January 2020, the beginning of not just a new year, but a new decade. The natural impulse at such a moment is to be hopeful, even optimistic. However, in the arena of foreign policy and international affairs this new year has started with a bombshell. On Friday, at President Trump’s order, a U.S. missile targeted and killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the charismatic mastermind of Iran’s security forces. Soleimani had iconic status in Iran and was a respected/feared figure throughout much of the Middle East. Iranian analysts have described his assassination as Iran’s 9/11.
Soleimani’s killing is guaranteed to have major — and bloody — consequences. The terrible irony is that the spiral of hostility and death that is coming was (and is) strategically unnecessary and even irrational. Consider, for a moment, the larger historical and geopolitical context. Iran is a major nation, of great intrinsic importance in the Middle East. It is large, sits at the confluence of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia and has a deep history as one of antiquity’s great civilizations. It is also the center of Shiism, one Islam’s two major branches. Viewed through the prism of national interests, Iran held a natural attraction for the United States. Economically it possessed major oil reserves and its people had a natural affinity for commerce. And Iran, a non-Arab country in a predominantly Arab Middle East, had a natural affinity for America, a non-Arab power from outside the region.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Iran, ruled by the Shah, was a close strategic partner to the United States. Everything changed with the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah and produced a quasi-autocratic regime controlled by clerics led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini made a fateful choice to brand the United States as the enemy of the revolution — “the great Satan.” Iranian street mobs invaded the U.S. embassy and took American diplomats hostage. The United States responded with stringent economic sanctions.
Calculations of mutual strategic and economic interests went out the window. Tehran was driven by religious/ideological fervor. America saw a nation of hostile religious fanatics. The result was a spiral of mutual antipathy that remained unaltered for 40 years. In 2013, the Obama administration launched a determined effort to break that cycle of enmity. The Obama White House recognized that the only real “threat” Iran posed to the United States was its capacity to build nuclear weapons, if it chose to. The Europeans, Russia and China shared this concern. The result was a lengthy, difficult multi-sided diplomatic negotiation that finally produced an agreement. Iran would foreswear any attempt to build nuclear weapons for a minimum of 10-15 years and would accept a stringent international inspection regime to ensure compliance. In return, the United States and its negotiating partners would lift sanctions. So, when the Trump administration took office it inherited a dramatically changed international landscape. There was open communication with Tehran, Iranian-sponsored attacks on U.S. troops and facilities ceased and Iranian oil was flowing to international markets. Iran’s president openly supported improved ties with America while relying on a U.S.-educated foreign minister. The rest of the world was hugely relieved and supportive.
However, there were powerful voices in Tehran insisting that America could not be trusted. They had their counterparts on the hard political right in the United States — loudly supported by the Netanyahu administration in Israel. President Trump immediately (no debate; no analytical process) sided with the critics and declared the nuclear deal with Iran was the “worst in history.” The United States pulled out of the agreement and reimposed severe sanctions while demanding a suite of new concessions from Iran that experts unanimously judged Iran would totally reject. It did. The rest of the world declined to support the new U.S. policy but the cycle of U.S.-Iranian enmity resumed. Gen. Soleimani put together a network of Shiite militias in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon — working with the Assad regime in Syria — to target the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
Now Soleimani is dead and huge crowds of angry demonstrators shouting “Death to America” are in the streets of the Shiite Middle East. Iran’s leader has promised “tough vengeance” and the government has announced it will no longer observe the nuclear agreement — potentially paving the way to start a nuclear weapons program. The United States has responded with new troop deployments to the Middle East. Trump announced that the United States has already selected 52 “high-value” targets in Iran (including revered religious and cultural sites) that the United States will destroy if Iran retaliates for Soleimani’s death. [Deliberately targeting cultural heritage sites is a war crime under international law]. Meanwhile, in Baghdad the Parliament has voted to expel U.S. forces stationed in that country — ending the war against ISIS. Trump has threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq — and destroy that nation’s economy — if it compels U.S. troops to leave.
President Trump came into office promising to end “endless wars” in the Middle East and bring U.S. troops home. He declared that his policy toward Iran would produce concessions from Tehran and a new and better agreement. In each instance, the opposite has happened — while ISIS has a new lease on life. All this is made more disturbing by indications that the “intelligence reports” about imminent Iranian attacks the White House cited to justify the Soleimani assassination have been seriously mischaracterized by the administration. Furthermore, a once strong team of counterterrorism and security experts in the National Security Council has been replaced with novices, political hacks, plus Ivanka Trump. And at the top we have a commander in chief who is impulsive, erratic and without any real understanding of Iran — or security strategy. And now we can anticipate a major retaliatory attack by Iran. And after that…
Happy New Year.