Donald Trump’s Iran Policy Comes Down to One Word: Chaos

This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on January 4, 2020.
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Imagine a neutral Germany carefully balanced between dueling America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and celebrated war hero arrived in Berlin, where he was met by the head of a local pro‑U.S. militia. Meetings also were planned with German leaders. As his vehicle left the airport Soviet planes struck the chairman’s party, killing him and his host.

As stunned U.S. officials processed the news, Moscow announced that the action was meant for self‐​defense and to deescalate the situation. America’s president then called a press conference, telling reporters: “I guess that makes it okay. No hard feelings. Let’s have those negotiations on U.S. disarmament that the Soviets proposed.” The lion laid down with the lamb as Americans and Soviets held mass rallies holding hands while singing Kumbaya.

No, that’s not what the president would say. Nor what the American people would do. Nor what would happen. Especially if Donald Trump was president.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that those representing the world’s sole superpower (or hyperpower or unipower) originally acted as if the U.S. is the essential nation that stands taller and sees further, in Madeleine Albright’s infamous words. And which can act unilaterally, imperiously, and recklessly without consequence — deciding, for instance, again in Albright’s words, that killing a half million Iraqi babies is a worthwhile price to achieve American objectives.

What is shocking is how today’s officials ignore years, even decades, of interventionist failure. To believe that Washington can kill a top official of one nation in a strike on a third country without consequence is the triumph of hysterical arrogance over sustained experience. Yet the Trump administration targeted Qassim Suleimani, the notorious head of the Quds Forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Also killed was an Iraqi national, Abu Mahdi al‐​Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iran‐​supported militia, and a number of others. Suleimani’s convoy was hit by missiles as it left the airport.

No one should shed any tears for Suleimani or al‐​Muhandis (though, ugly truth be told, neither likely killed as many people as the number of people who died as a result of George W. Bush’s foolish decision to invade Iraq). But foreign policy is not an appropriate tool for meting out presumed justice, a convenient way to eliminate bad people. There are a lot of evil, harmful, problematic people in the world. Too many to turn over to American “justice.” Moreover, foreign policy must be concerned with consequences. What will the impact be on Americans and other peoples? Unfortunately, the administration apparently thought there would be none, at least nothing negative.

Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played Pollyanna: “The world is a much safer place today,” he said Friday after the strike: “And I can assure you that Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassem Soleimani.” Why then did the administration rush another 3000 troops to Kuwait as a precautionary measure, in addition to the 14,000 sent since May?

Moreover, why did the State Department send out a travel alert urging Americans to rush home: “Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, we urge U.S. citizens to depart Iraq immediately. Due to Iranian‐​backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy.” Travelers needing help were told to go to the U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdistan. So much for everyone being safer.

Washington transgressed the usual norms and red lines which govern the occasional violence between adversaries: countries typically don’t target other nations’ leaders. One reason is self‐​preservation. You don’t want your adversaries to retaliate against you. More open Western societies probably are more vulnerable than authoritarian ones. And, ultimately, there has to be someone to negotiate with when the endgame is reached. Truly decapitating a government can be as problematic for the winner as the loser.

In irregular warfare and counterterrorism the U.S. has been more willing to target leaders, but doing so has had little impact on the level of violence. New leaders arise. In the case of Afghanistan’s Taliban, many replacements were more radical than the men they succeeded. Which made a peaceful settlement less likely. Israel has killed a number of top Hamas and Hezbollah leaders; these organizations are no less threatening today. Assassination is ineffective as general strategy.

Secretary Pompeo naturally contended that the president was defending the U.S. He claimed: “I can’t talk too much about the nature of the threats. But the American people should know that the President’s decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.” The secretary contended that Soleimani was “actively plotting” to “take big action, as he described it, that would have put hundreds of lives at risk.” The threat was “imminent,” Pompeo claimed, concluding: “The risk of doing nothing was enormous. Intelligence community made that assessment and President Trump acted decisively last night.”

Unfortunately, none of these claims can be taken at face value. The secretary’s litany of previous falsehoods is long and leaves him with little credibility. Moreover, the Iraq war provides myriad examples of how to manufacture and manipulate alleged intelligence, cook the results according to preferred ideological and political recipes, and selectively interpret whatever resulted to yield the desired conclusion.

The Iraqi experience warns Americans that even specific citations of specific plots by specific sources are suspect. True, the corrupt, dishonest Ahmed Chalabi, who did so much to lie Americans into invading Iraq, is dead. However, the Mojahedin‑e Khalq, or MEK, a cultish one‐​time terrorist group has ties to the administration, and the Netanyahu government, desperate to break Israel’s electoral deadlock, is a Trump favorite. Both have strong incentives to use any means possible to convince Washington to eliminate the Islamist regime in Tehran.

In any case, tweeted Reuters editor Gerry Doyle, “the problem with this is that it asks us to believe that killing one person undoes an entire military apparatus, or defuses an operation. that’s only true in the movies. unless Soleimani was planning to personally carry out the attack, this doesn’t physically prevent anything.” The Iranian was no lone wolf or singular mastermind. He ran an organization and had deputies, assistants, and multitude of others involved in any plot. They have the incentive and means to ensure that the show goes on, as it were.

So purposeless, undisciplined, and reckless was the U.S. attack that even Iran’s extremists were surprised. Tweeted Negar Mortazavi, diplomatic correspondent for the Independent: “Hardliner in Tehran tells me killing Soleimani is a disproportionate response to embassy protests and makes no sense. Says: They either wanted to kill an Iraqi militia commander and hit Soleimani by mistake, or they are true morons.”

Alas, it almost certainly was the latter. The administration apparently imagined that it could shock the Islamic republic into quietude. Secretary Pompeo has been on the hustings claiming the administration wanted to deescalate. The president sent out a curious tweet presumably intended to push Tehran toward diplomacy: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” And the administration reportedly has communicated with Tehran, presumably to press the president’s request for talks.

However, if productive diplomacy leading to a peaceful modus vivendi was the objective, Washington aimed its missiles much too high. Soleimani was too important to Tehran, and too popular with the public, making his death impossible to ignore, even by those who may not have been rivals.

For instance, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that Soleimani’s death was “bitter” but that “the final victory will make life more bitter for the murderers and criminals.” Defense Minister (and Brig. Gen.) Amir Hatami said the regime would give a “crushing” response.

Even relative moderates had little choice but to threaten Washington. President Hassan Rouhani declared that “The flag of General Soleimani in defense of the country’s territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region will be raised, and the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the JCPOA, or nuclear agreement, with the Obama administration, termed the assassination an “act of international terrorism” and declared that America “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Grant the inevitable posturing and overstatement. After such proclamations, the regime cannot do nothing. Certainly, its leaders cannot be seen shaking Donald Trump’s hand after signing an agreement filled with additional concessions to a government which not only trashed the previous pact but killed one of Iran’s leading revolutionary figures. Narges Bajoghli of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, warned that the assassination was highly symbolic, but the sort of symbolism that “has the power to move people to action.”

Then there is the problem of Iraq, currently convulsed by public protests focused on protecting the nation’s sovereignty. Tehran was the primary target of the protests, but Washington’s warmaking on Iraqi territory has shifted the spotlight to America.

Iraqi leaders overwhelmingly criticized the U.S. raid, which Prime Minister Adel Abdul‐​Mahdi called an “assassination.” The Daily Beast quoted an Iraqi official as saying: “Some will celebrate, some will mourn, some will seek revenge.” However, U.S.-Iraqi relations were in “real jeopardy.”

Abdul‐​Mahdi said “the two martyrs were huge symbols of the victory” over ISIS. He denounced the “aggression against Iraq” and “massive breach of sovereignty” which violated the conditions governing the American military’s presence in Iraq. He worried about “a dangerous escalation that will light the fuse of a destructive war in Iraq, the region, and the world.”

The premier invited parliament to reassemble in special session to “take legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty.” And that likely means a full‐​scale assault on America’s presence. Deputy Speaker Hassan al‐​Kaabi said they would gather and make “Decisive decisions that put an end to U.S. presence inside Iraq.”

Perhaps more ominous was the reaction of Shiite extremist religious leader Muqtada al‐​Sadr, whose Mahdi Army once battled American occupation troops but who had turned populist politician, most recently pressing for his nation’s independence from both the U.S. and Iran. He praised Soleimani and reactivated the Mahdi Army. On Twitter he instructed his “fighters, particularly those from the Mahdi Army, to be ready” for action following the airstrike.

At least al‐​Sadr was ambiguous, only saying that their job was to defend Iraq — though almost certainly he meant from the U.S. Qais al‐​Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al‐​Haq militia, a member of al‐​Muhandis’ Popular Mobilization Forces, was more explicit when he also ordered his fighters to get ready. He declared: “All fighters should be on high alert for upcoming battle and great victory. The price for the blood of the martyred commander Abu Mahdi al‐​Muhandis is the complete end to American military presence in Iraq.”

President Trump’s policy toward Iran continues to bear ill fruit. When he entered the Oval Office, Tehran’s nuclear program was limited by a tight inspections and safeguard system. The Islamic regime faced internal tensions as the young, especially, hoped for greater economic opportunities in the West. With Iran’s nuclear ambitions tamed, the U.S. and allied states could follow up with a challenge to Tehran to moderate its regional behavior in return for additional, appropriate concessions.

Instead, the president abandoned the JCPOA, reinstituted sanctions, and added new ones while demanding that Iran abandon its independent foreign policy. Tehran naturally refused.

Today Iran is simultaneously facing instability at home and creating instability abroad, more active than ever throughout the Middle East. The regime has revived its nuclear research program and breached the negotiated limits. Tehran’s missiles have become even more important in deterring the well‐​armed Saudi royals, who seemingly have Trump administration officials on retainer. Worse, the U.S. and Iran now are publicly at war. They risk setting off an escalatory cycle which could result in disaster. So much for the policy of maximum pressure.

But there is still time for America to pull back from the brink. U.S. policymakers must abandon the fantasy that they can manage the world and especially the Mideast. Rising opposition to America’s presence in Iraq should become the catalyst for a general withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

The Middle East no longer matters so much. The cost of continued American military involvement exceeds any plausible benefits. Allied and friendly nations should take responsibility for their own defense. Most important, the U.S. should declare neutrality in the Shia‐​Sunni struggle, leaving the players to reach their own accommodation. No more endless wars fought for others. No more military deployments manipulated for the benefit other nations. Rather, a foreign policy finally focused on protecting, serving, and benefitting Americans.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.