Since its birth, the Islamic republic has waged war and spilled blood — of Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Israelis, Argentine Jews and Iranians, among many others — with virtual impunity. Only the Israelis have consistently retaliated. Iranian weapons in the hands of Iranian-backed groups killed 241 U.S. service members in Beirut in 1983 and more than 600 in Iraq during the 2000s. Yet Iran was never held responsible, which only emboldened its leadership.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, and especially after the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), Iran became confident that the United States had neither the means nor the will to challenge it for control of the Middle East. Enriched by the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of funds, and undeterred by weak U.S. pronouncements, Iran unleashed a campaign for regional hegemony headed by Soleimani. The United States barely responded.
Against this backdrop of U.S. passivity, Iran began a new, bolder series of provocations last summer, culminating in the recent assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Unfortunately, President Trump initially displayed the same general reluctance as his predecessors to punish Iran.
Until Jan. 3.
The missiles fired early that morning by a drone just outside the Baghdad airport not only killed men responsible for Iran’s reign of terror and regional aggression. They also disproved Iran’s belief in U.S. fecklessness and marked a departure for an American president that has generally relied only on economic sanctions to pressure Iran. As Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper stated before the attack, “The game has changed.” The shock and disruption the Iranians will feel from the loss of their “shadow commander” and the failure of their understanding of U.S. strategy cannot be overstated.
But we should not overestimate how long this state of confusion will last.
Iran will now set about determining just how much the game has actually changed. As it did with its attacks last summer, Iran will probe the U.S. posture in the Middle East, in a calculated fashion, until it is confident it understands the new red lines.
To change the game for good, the United States needs to demonstrate commitment to boldly confront and roll back Iranian aggression. Trump did that in a tweet on Saturday, warning of hitting 52 Iranian sites, but seemingly only marginally expanding the red line: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets.” That suggested that not only Iran taking American lives will trigger U.S. retaliation, but also downing a U.S. drone, which in June did not trigger a military response. The red line does not seem to include key energy assets of our Gulf Arab allies, which we have effectively pledged to protect since President Carter, if not before. Iran will certainly test these propositions.
But what of U.S. goals? Trump said on Friday he opposes regime change. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated we seek “to convince the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation,” a vague phrase he has used before.
Trump’s statement Wednesday seeking a new and improved nuclear deal is also inadequate, if not misguided. He correctly withdrew from the JCPOA, and Iran has said it will no longer adhere to it. But a new acceptable deal is highly unlikely. Iran will only consent to a new deal that includes the JCPOA’s “sunset clause,” which stipulates that restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program expire by 2030 and permits continued development of its ballistic missile program — both nonstarters. Even negotiations on a new deal could prove perilous to U.S. interests, because they almost certainly mean softening sanctions and weakening the regionwide anti-Iran front, thereby reviving the fortunes of a Tehran regime that is tottering in the face of widespread domestic and regional opposition.
To truly loosen the regime’s grip on power and on the region, the United States must explicitly make regime collapse its policy. We don’t mean “regime change” through a U.S. ground invasion, such as Iraq in 2003, but the imposition of consistent, comprehensive pressure, beyond economic sanctions, to exacerbate Iran’s internal tensions so that the regime is ultimately undone from within.
This requires confronting and raising the costs of Iran’s imperial project, not just those actions that threaten only American lives and assets. The United States must keep up the attacks against Iranian assets in the region and join Israel in rolling back Iranian aggression.
The Soleimani strike has changed the game. But the United States will win only if the strike inaugurates a new, concerted strategy of pressuring the Tehran regime until it collapses.