Much has been said about Iran’s reaction to and retaliation for the U.S. strike that took out Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of January. However, while we should prepare for possible Iranian reactions, we must focus on combating Iran’s long-term threat as well.
Soleimani skillfully constructed a network of resilient Iranian proxies across the Middle East and established an Iranian military presence in the region. These efforts helped expand Persian influence in neighboring countries and will allow Iranian missiles to threaten larger portions of Europe. Soleimani’s assassination will not hinder the growth of this network, but will rather bolster Iran’s motivation to expand its influence across the region.
Iran currently possesses a number of missiles of all sorts: short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) such as the Qiam-1, capable of reaching a large portion of the Middle East; medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) such as the Sejjil, which cover the entire Middle East and Eastern Europe; and the Soumar cruise missile, which can reach Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia and more. To increase the reach of its missile arsenal, Iran has been looking to roll out its missile launching pads in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, minimizing the distance to Europe and enabling their missiles to reach Germany and Poland.
To date, however, the only country that seems to have taken any action against Iran’s growing missile threat has been Israel. In the past few years it has been reported that Israel has attacked Iranian military bases in Syria and missile shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria numerous times. If countries continue to leave this responsibility to the Israelis, they may wake up one morning not to an alarm clock, but to an Iranian missile landing in their backyard.
Iran reportedly is also working on Project Koussar, which is allegedly seeking to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Shahab-6, with a range of 4,000-5,000 km. That would be roughly double the distance of the Soumar cruise missile and would put the entire European continent, Northern Africa, the Far East and a portion of Russia in Iran’s striking distance. The United States and its allies in Europe and Asia must work together to cripple this program.
The third missile concern takes us to South America. Iran has cultivated a strong relationship with South American countries throughout the years. It would not take much from Iran to reposition a number of its MRBMs to South America should it want to pose a threat to the United States. This may seem ludicrous to some, but Iran these days has every reason to seek to deter the United States from taking further action against it.
Stationing missiles in America’s backyard may cause the American leader to think harder before taking any military action against Iran. Creating a crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 may be an option in the Iranian playbook, and the possibility should be taken seriously by American diplomats, policy makers and national security advisors.
Iran’s leaders have noticed that aggressor nations obtaining nuclear weapons avoid any foreign military interventions on their soil. Countries like North Korea and Pakistan developed nuclear capabilities and their senior officials hide behind that immunity. It was thus not a surprise when Iran declared it would roll back its commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal shortly after the elimination of Soleimani.
Even before the announcement, Iran had breached the JCPOA agreement numerous times, but many countries were forgiving. Now that the E3 countries have elected to trigger the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, the nuclear threat has become greater. According to a recent Israeli intelligence report, if Iran continues its nuclear program at its current rate, Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a bomb by this spring, and missile capabilities for delivering such a bomb within two years.
This concern has grown since Iran’s statement that it is now enriching uranium at a higher rate than before agreeing to the JCPOA.
Finally, since the beginning of January, Iran has attacked military bases in Iraq that hosted U.S. troops. Fortunately for the American soldiers on those bases, only Iraqi soldiers were hit in the attacks. Whether this tactic of targeting America but hitting Iraqis was a conscious Iranian decision or a coincidence, it has so far led the Iraqi parliament to vote on expelling American troops from the country.
President Donald Trump has pushed back with a threat to sanction Iraq should it move forward with that resolution, and it so far seems to have maintained the status quo. If Iran were to continue with this tactic, it would eventually drive a wedge between the United States and Iraq—making the Iraqi people feel as though they are the ones taking the hit for the United States. This would create stronger pressure on the Iraqi government to move forward with their resolution, despite American sanctions. In other words, the United States will end up having to leave Iraq—ironically a lifetime goal for Soleimani.
Now, more than ever, it is the time to address these issues. With protests against the government erupting within Iran and international pressure on Tehran following the downing by the Iranian military of a Ukrainian airline, Iran has never been closer to change since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The United States must seize this moment and devise a plan together with our allies to shift Iran. We must be careful not to cause the internal pressure to backfire, rather we must harness the internal pressure in Iran to help bring change within the country. If done right, the United States can help bring stability to the region and make the world a safer place by tackling these long-term Iranian ambitions and fostering human rights and equality in Iran.
Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.