Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who serves on the Intelligence Committee, voiced the frustration. He said immediately after last week’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani that the Quds Force leader was a “terrorist with blood on his hands.” But after two intelligence briefings this week, he complained: “I have not seen intelligence that convinces me this was the moment that action had to be taken to prevent an imminent attack.”
King also expressed a widely shared concern that the administration hasn’t articulated a clear long-term policy to contain a destabilizing Iran and advance U.S. interests in the region, beyond this month’s cycle of reprisal and retaliation.
But let’s imagine, alongside Reagan’s little boy, that there’s a pony in there somewhere (even if Trump himself doesn’t seem to know quite where). What would a real, sustainable Iran strategy — based on Trump’s correct goal of changing Iranian behavior — look like, and how would it be implemented?
The first step would be to mobilize global partners for a serious diplomatic engagement with Iran. If the past few weeks have taught the United States and Iran anything, it’s that the current course can’t continue without severe damage to both. The path out begins with the toxic issues at the core: Iran’s threat to regional stability through its proxies, ballistic missiles and renewed nuclear menace; and the United States’ undeclared but very real economic war against Tehran.
Trump suggested this path in his speech Wednesday, saying the United States was “ready to embrace peace” because Iran was “standing down” after firing retaliatory missiles on two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces. Trump named the United States’ partners in the 2015 nuclear agreement — Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — and said, “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Sound policy, but Trump needs to follow through quickly, before another cycle of violence begins. And he needs to signal that in this new negotiation, Iran can expect a relaxation of economic sanctions and new investment that, in his words, “allows Iran to thrive and prosper.”
A second step toward a coherent strategy would be a plan to stabilize Iraq without a perpetual U.S. troop presence, which Iraqis and Americans don’t want. A pell-mell U.S. withdrawal would be a big mistake, because it would destabilize Iraq and give Iran a prize it doesn’t deserve (and couldn’t manage).
What Iraq needs is a framework for continued U.S. training — outside the country, perhaps in Jordan — of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service and intelligence service. These two units, carefully nurtured by U.S. mentors over the past 15 years, are the best guarantors that Baghdad can maintain some independence from its big, pushy neighbor to the east.
The reason Tehran should accept this ongoing U.S. role with Iraq is that it’s the best way to prevent a resurgence there of Sunni radicalism and the Islamic State — a problem that Shiite Iran can’t solve alone. Here again, Trump conveyed the right framework Wednesday when he said: “The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
Trump made a reasonable start on an Iran strategy in an October 2017 speech when he announced that he wanted to stop the “fanatical,” destabilizing export of revolution symbolized by Soleimani. The problem is that Trump then ignored three conclusions from his intelligence analysts: Scuttling the 2015 nuclear deal would create dissension among U.S. allies without any benefit; massive economic sanctions wouldn’t drive Iran back to the bargaining table; and killing Soleimani would create more problems than it solved.
Back in 2017, the administration began preparing a legal case for last week’s targeted killing. The problem, officials said, is that although the evidence of Soleimani’s long-term threat was rock solid, the “imminent” mass-casualty attacks on Americans that triggered last week’s strike may have been only contingency plans, not yet activated.
There’s an Iran strategy in here somewhere, lurking under the mess. After more than 40 years of undeclared U.S.-Iranian war, it’s time to clear away the debris and make a new start.