The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the longtime commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has profoundly changed the playing field between the United States and Iran. For the first time since 1988—when U.S. President Ronald Reagan responded to Iranian provocations in the Straits of Hormuz by sinking Iranian warships and destroying two oil platforms—tangible consequences were imposed on the regime. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini 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 … his 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 expansionistic: 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 and in American hands 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, or JCPOA) and remove U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions, while the president might decide to remove all troops from Iraq.
Critics are focused on the constitutionality of the targeted assassination. Yet they seem to have forgotten that the recent Iranian attack on the U.S. 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 that 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, write “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,” i.e., to be more moderate. 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 by Khameini to run in the “election.” So the definition of a moderate for the last administration was a hardline 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 its missile development, expansionism, human-rights abuses or terrorism.
Soleimani and Khameini looked at the deal as a pathway to remove America from the region, and solidify their control of the Shi’ite 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 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 re-evaluation of what was conceded. A new agreement must fix the “no inspections at military sites” provision, the most likely place for clandestine nuclear R&D that, according to my sources, became even more relevant after the Israelis stole Iran’s nuclear archive in Tehran, documenting previously unknown nuclear military sites that are still being studied as possible future targets.
We need to look at the new possibilities and perils in the post Soleimani era. Trump’s seemingly 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 transited 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?
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. 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.”