The little Cold War with Iran is heating up. Last week, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia operating in both Syria and Iran. Washington approved the attacks after a U.S. defense contractor was killed by an Iranian rocket attack in Iraq. The Iranian Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, was behind the plots. To paraphrase Trump, Soleimani was a “bad hombre.”
In retaliation, the Iranians encouraged their supporters in Iraq to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. President Trump vowed that the embassy attack “would not be another Benghazi.” He then deployed rapid reaction forces to protect the embassy—with an additional 4,000 U.S. troops flooding into Kuwait. Trump took the opportunity to eliminate Soleimani, likely dealing a critical blow to the already flailing Iranian regime.
After all, Soleimani is the man who not only planned the attack on the embassy in Baghdad but also has been responsible for the deaths of upwards of 1,000 U.S. service members over the years. What’s more, Soleimani may even have had a hand in the disastrous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Plus, Soleimani was a powerful figure in Iran’s government. His loss is America’s gain as its little Cold War with Iran intensifies.
The real question is why Iran would risk a wider conflict with the United States?
Iran’s Leadership Likely Hopes for War
First, Iran’s leaders believe they can get away with it. After every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has backed down in the face of their threats, the mullahs behave as they do simply because they’ve been acclimated to decades of American weakness. Trump is disabusing them of that habit (while rehabilitating America’s standing as the strong horse in the region).
Second, Iran’s ruling mullahs are fiercely ideological: they believe in a missionary interpretation of Shia Islam. They also have combined this religious fervor with fanatical Persian nationalism. Iran’s leadership wants to reconstitute the power of the ancient Safavid Dynasty. This was one of the Islamic “Gunpowder Empires.” Tehran believes its geostrategic and religious objectives can only be accomplished by pushing U.S. military power out of the region entirely.
Third, Iran’s leadership just might want war with the United States.
The regime in Iran is dying—literally. Iranian fertility rates have been plummeting for decades; the totalitarian, extremist religious leadership in Tehran has been stifling the great Iranian people’s will to survive and thrive.
Meanwhile, Iran’s decades-long flagrant aggression against the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states has led to the economic gutting of Iran—one of the largest oil producers in the world. The United States and our allies have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran, insisting that the Islamic Republic abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and reduce tensions with everyone before the sanctions come off. Iran’s fanatical leaders have chafed under these demands.
Rather than submit, Iran has intensified its conflict with the United States. Tehran believes Washington ultimately will back down. Yet, as Tehran and Washington have increased tensions, Iran’s people have taken to the streets in increasing numbers to demand fundamental political changes.
Iran’s Leaders Are Racing Against the Clock
The Iranians want a better economy. They cannot get that under the current regime. Iran’s leadership is too fanatical, corrupt, and invested in their ways to offer the fundamental change that Iranians everywhere seek.
The Iranian leadership has adopted a use-it-or-lose-it mentality. Either they push for conflict now to rejigger the power structure of the Middle East in their favor or their people take them out. Tehran’s leaders assume they can trick the United States into attacking them. They believe this would cause the protesting Iranian people to rally around the flag, giving the regime a new lease on life.
It sounds crazy. But Iran’s leaders are being rational. They have two options: either give in to American demands that they disarm and liberalize their regime or agitate for a conflict now, when they think the Americans are unprepared for one. The former option ensures that Iran’s leaders will lose their power, as defiance to the United States has been a cornerstone of their legitimacy at home. The latter option at least offers them a chance to remain in power.
This was precisely what Iran’s leaders thought as they refused to negotiate with Saddam Hussein’s regime over rights to the Shatt Al-Arab River, which led directly to the Iran-Iraq War. Iran also provoked the West throughout the 1980s, first supporting Hezbollah in its attempt to blow up the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, then by kidnapping and killing the CIA station chief in Beirut, and lastly by attempting to blockade the Strait of Hormuz.
Whatever happens next, Trump’s instincts about Iran have been spot on, considering the terrible position his predecessors left him in.
Throughout the 1980s, Iran was in dire economic straits caused by the mullah’s mismanagement of the economy. The same is true today. Conflict distracted the Iranian people from their domestic woes. It also diverted scores of young men from protesting against Iran’s turgid leadership and into the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq War.
Yet the mullahs have erred in their assessment of Donald Trump. Iran has provoked Trump for more than a year since he ended Barack Obama’s horrible nuclear agreement. Each time, Trump has responded in a proportional way. Iran is hoping that Trump has a George W. Bush moment and becomes mired in another Mideast quagmire.
Of course, such a misstep is always possible. But I think Trump is much more like Bill Clinton in that he is a foreign policy minimalist. In fact, Trump is a belligerent minimalist (which makes him better than Clinton). He will likely continue striking a balance between total war and covert strikes. Trump will respond to various Iranian provocations with targeted actions, cyberattacks, influence operations, and other covert tactics, weakening the failing Iranian regime—all while avoiding a wider regional war.
Trump Punishes His Enemies Without Overreacting
While Iran’s leadership may be courting a war as their last possible chance for maintaining power, they also do not want to be the side that starts a regional war.
For Tehran’s purposes, they must be viewed as the victim of American aggression. The more time that elapses without a direct confrontation, the weaker the Iranian regime becomes at home. Of course, this is when Iran will be its most dangerous. Remember, most analysts believe that Kaiser Wilhelm II’s government was at its weakest when it ultimately blundered into World War I.
So, Trump must keep the sanctions on Iran; he must insist that they denuclearize; Trump must then continue responding to Iranian provocations as vigorously as he has—without falling into the trap that Iran’s wily leaders have set for him.
Former President George W. Bush’s quixotic Iraq War broke the containment that the United States had placed Iran since the 1979 revolution. Obama exacerbated the problem by essentially handing the region over to Iran while allowing them to have a “legal pathway” to acquiring nuclear arms. Trump is acting boldly to return Iran to its box.
It might fail spectacularly. But Trump is playing with the hand his lackluster predecessors dealt him. And if Trump’s Iran policy succeeds—as it has until now—Trump will have protected the power balance in the region for the United States for another generation.
This year could be like 1962 when America deftly navigated itself out of a world war over Cuba—and was stronger for it. Or it could be 1914, when the world’s great powers sleepwalked into a world war. Trump is not Obama. He will not back down. Trump is also not Kaiser Wilhelm II. Trump will not turn his back on America’s friends, such as Israel. At the same time, though, Trump will not blithely enter into another destabilizing regional war—sacrificing his presidency on the altar of the gods of war—as George W. Bush did in 2003.
Thus far, Trump has found the Goldilocks zone of dealing with Iran’s perennial threat. The next move is in Iran’s hands.
The U.S. military is ready. Yet Americans must prepare for an unconventional response from Iran that targets the critical infrastructure of the homeland itself. The White House has put in place measures to better defend against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. The U.S. Cyber Command is vigilant for any forthcoming cyber attack. Next, American security officials should prepare for the possibility of an Iranian-backed terror attack here in the United States. It will be tense going forward, but vigilance and strength will keep Iran at bay while their people tear the regime down from within.
Whatever happens next, Trump’s instincts about Iran have been spot on, considering the terrible position his predecessors left him in. Let’s stay the course.