Solving the Persian Problem

President Trump has had a number of advisers with seemingly very different strategies for dealing with the long-standing radical fundamentalist Shiite nemesis of Iran. This came to a head last week, when Trump pulled the trigger and extinguished General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the most revered and powerful military and terrorist leader in the Middle East.

Soleimani had more blood on his hands than Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi combined. That included killing scores of American and coalition servicemen and maiming thousands more, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims, and displacing millions more.

The drone strike that killed Soleimani was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the U.S. Defense Department said. Trump himself tweeted the result and demanded an end to Iranian threats.

The strike should be seen as part of a maximum pressure campaign aimed at regime collapse. Iran raised the stakes with its targeting of U.S. military forces, contractors, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The action was therefore legal, warranted, and a proper response to a legitimate and immediate threat.

It was about time, too. Iran has been the primary culprit of hatred, bloodshed, and the reign of terror in the larger region for four decades.

Iran’s Greatest Export: Terror

Trump has shown insight and deliberation on Iran as he has attempted to renegotiate what was a horribly bad deal made by the Obama team and his secretary of state, John Kerry. It was a sell-out that did not achieve what it sought, failed in many areas, and sent money—in cash—to a terrorist state without getting sufficient benefits in return. It was, in other words, what Trump correctly called “a very bad deal.”

Let’s face it: Iran has been a real thorn in the side of America and the West since it overthrew the Shah in 1979, and went down a path of radical political Islam. It has put into place what is unquestionably a terrorist state and exports that terrorism everywhere in the region and around the world. The facts are well documented, and any future strategy needs to fix this.

Iran’s people repeatedly have chanted “Death to America” since they first stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized 52 American hostages. Things never got better, and through the years Iran has become synonymous with the very word “terrorism.” It spews hate at Israel and all who refuse to accept its evil regime. Lebanon, one of the few relatively progressive, developed, and democratic Arab states, has been ruined by the radicalization and militarization of the Shia population by Hezbollah, an armed militia that doesn’t even bother to keep its political wing separate as the Irish Republican Army and Basque nationalists (both terrorist groups to be sure) have done.

Not only has Iran terrorized its own citizens, but it has also become the prime exporter of terror against its neighbors and in the rest of the Middle East. It has funded and extolled proxies, the Hamas radicals in the Palestinian territory, the Houthis against Yemen, and the Hezbollah armies in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It has funded as much terror as possible.

The Quds Force is a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that is directed to carry out unconventional and asymmetrical warfare and intelligence activities and is responsible for extraterritorial operations.

It was commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani. The Quds Force has prominent private-sector fronts all over the world and operates both a clandestine intelligence force and a standing army semi-separate from the Iranian military. The Quds Force directly supports the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Yemeni Houthis, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

The United States has designated the Quds Force a supporter of terrorism since 2007. This was reaffirmed by the United States when the IRGC as a whole was designated as a terrorist group in April 2019. Analysts do not know the Quds Force’s exact size but estimate it at about 20,000 members. It reports directly to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Hawks and Doves Compete for Trump’s Ear

One approach to Iran of U.S. hawks is military engagement and a counterstrike policy that could escalate and embroil the region and America in a long, costly, and devastating war, as was the case in Iraq.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, allegedly “never met a war he did not like.” He seemed ready to bomb or even use troops to bring about regime change. His hands were all over the administration’s Iraq strategy until Trump dismissed him in September.

However, people such as the dovish Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian who generally opposes the use of American force and its military-industrial complex, also have Trump’s ear. They don’t want America engaged in Iran or elsewhere and don’t see any cost-benefit analysis that suggests that there are sufficient upsides to risking war. Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host, is a recent addition to this list of peacemongers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has straddled the middle. He suggests a halfway approach that lists 12 conditions Iran must meet to be welcomed back into the community of nations and advocates using maximum economic sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiating table. That these conditions are unacceptable to Tehran is beside the point: The status quo is unacceptable to Washington. Pompeo sees a proportional use of strength and has argued for more sanctions as well as crypto actions against the radical Iranian regime, its armed forces, and its economy.

After an incident involving the use of sea mines or torpedoes against two foreign tankers and the downing of an American unmanned drone, Trump decided to take the Pompeo route and stopped short of retaliatory measures entailing the loss of many lives, instead opting for more thorough and damaging sanctions. This wise and measured response has been well received by the international community but roundly criticized by the neocons and some Democrats as showing a lack of American resolve and decisiveness.

Correcting Four Decades of Bad Policy

What Trump is doing on Iran is trying to fix decades of bad policy and to deflect that nation’s atrocious behavior in the region as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. The mullahs are reluctant to change their evil ways even if there are variations in their political views.

The pressure Trump has applied and the persistence to stay the course are increasingly likely to achieve a good outcome.

Iran’s economy suffers and suffers and then suffers some more. Inflation is out of control; the currency has fallen precipitously; goods are hard to find and expensive; oil revenues have plummeted; GNP continues to decline. All this in time could cause implosion or regime collapse without an American firing a shot.

If Trump keeps his nerve and implements measures that cut off Iran’s last foreign economic lifelines, that nation’s prospects will be grim. Iran’s population is already suffering under the incompetent rule of an oppressive theocracy. That explains its silly brinkmanship. But ruling mullahs also must know that blowing up the nuclear accord will only push the Europeans reluctantly into Trump’s arms and further worsen Iran’s economic plight.

A patient course gives Iran no option but to play Trump’s game at no cost or bloodshed for America. This is another potentially winning strategy. Trump is good at tough talk and bold diplomacy, but he does not seek war. The mullahs would be wise to bring their reasonable faculties to bear. Retaliation or escalation will only bring 52 already aimed sites, one for each American hostage from the original conflict, into sight.

It’s time to realize, it is Trump’s world.

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About Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, scholar-diplomat-strategist, is CEO of the thought leadership firm The Roosevelt Group. He is the author of 18 books, including The Plot to Destroy Trump and, with Felipe J. Cuello, Trump's World: GEO DEUS. He appears regularly in the media, as a keynote speaker, and on television around the world. 

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