This was my instant reaction on Thursday night too after the news broke — not the “I hate this” part but bafflement that Trump would wreck any chance of diplomacy with Iran after he’d seemed so eager to renegotiate the Obama nuclear deal. The irony of his Iran policy is that although he’s been much more confrontational with Iran than O was, backing away from the JCPOA and reimplementing punishing sanctions, it was clearly with an eye to bringing them to the bargaining table. I think Trump imagined that Iran diplomacy might track with how the first two years of his North Korea diplomacy played out. There’d be some initial belligerent posturing by both sides to signal toughness and resolve, then suddenly a surprise detente capped by an historic presidential summit. Ideally a new nuclear deal would be signed (“the best, most beautiful nuclear deal ever, much better than Obama’s, believe me”) and a gesture towards reestablishing permanent diplomatic relations would be made.
In fact, it may actually be that the Iranians stood a better chance of striking a grand bargain involving formal U.S. recognition of the regime with Trump than they did with O. For Obama, making a deal like that would have drawn scorching criticism from righties that he’d sold out the Iranian people by legitimizing the terrorist government that’s holding them captive. It would have been treated as the supreme example of his weakness and inclination towards appeasement. Whereas if Trump would have done the same thing, no one would have said jack. And the punchline is, Tehran likely wouldn’t have needed to make many concessions on the nuclear deal to satisfy Trump. The sort of minor tweaks that turned NAFTA into the USMCA and handed the president a political victory probably would have been enough.
But they refused to blink by agreeing to talk until Trump blinked first by lifting the sanctions. And Trump refused to blink by lifting the sanctions until Iran blinked first by agreeing to talk. That was the staring contest we were stuck in, until Iranian rockets killed a U.S. contractor before New Year’s and Iranian militias descended upon the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Then Trump whacked Soleimani and now here we are, with diplomacy seemingly gone for good.
Paul, a former informal Trump envoy to Iran, makes an effective case in the clip below that this was a major miscalculation, mainly because of how far it set back diplomatic relations. But his argument goes further: If we’re worried about Iran attacking the U.S., he asks, why would we hit them in a way that doesn’t fundamentally affect their ability to attack us but does increase their desire to do so? The reporting circulating today bears out that worry:
In the tense hours following the American killing of a top Iranian military commander, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation. It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, three Iranians familiar with the meeting said Monday.
It was a startling departure for the Iranian leadership. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Tehran had almost always cloaked its attacks behind the actions of proxies it had cultivated around the region. But in the fury generated by the killing of the military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a close ally and personal friend of the supreme leader, the ayatollah was willing to cast aside those traditional cautions.
A “direct and proportional” attack presumably would involve the assassination of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or some officer of that caliber, not blowing up American troops stationed at a base in Iraq, but the latter is more likely than the former. The more significant detail, though, is Khamenei allegedly insisting that the reprisal come from Iran’s own forces rather than a militia somewhere. Wanting their fingerprints on the attack is their way of signaling how eager they are for revenge. Not a great mindset for future diplomacy. More from the AP:
According to a report on Tuesday by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Iran has worked up 13 sets of plans to avenge Soleimani’s death. The report quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying that even the weakest among them would be a “historic nightmare” for the U.S. He declined to elaborate,
“If the U.S. troops do not leave our region voluntarily and upright, we will do something to carry their bodies horizontally out,” Shamkhani said.
Iran’s parliament passed a bill this morning designating all U.S. troops and Pentagon employees as “terrorists,” presumably making them fair game for retaliation. Certainly things are going to get worse before they get better.
Two points contra Paul, though. One: It may be that Soleimani was a figure of such sinister cunning that eliminating him is worth the long-term setback to U.S.-Iran diplomacy. The historical parallel would be Reinhard Heydrich. He was killed knowing there’d be terrible reprisals for his assassination but his value to the Third Reich was such that it was worth bearing that cost in order to deprive them of the asset. Paul assumes in the clip that the Quds Force will go forward from here without missing a beat, but that may not be true. And even if it is true short-term, Trump’s willingness to cut off the head of Iran’s military will sober them up about the potential costs of future attacks on U.S. interests. Iran needs to retaliate for Soleimani’s death in order to show it won’t be pushed around but whether it will maintain provocations against the United States indefinitely at the same clip that it used to is an open question.
Two: Paul is grim in the interview about the radicalizing effect killing Soleimani might have on Iranian moderates, fearing a “rally around the flag” effect as the country grieves its fallen hero, but that’s also an open question. How many Iranian moderates are actually mourning Soleimani, whose forces were also responsible for killing Iranian protesters? Of those who are mourning, how many genuinely feel grief and how many are going through the motions in order not to attract unfavorable attention from the hardliners at the top of the regime? In lieu of an exit question, read this piece by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad scolding western media for being so credulous about the grand displays of mourning in Iran over the last few days. “Remember all the articles that predicted how Iranians were going to unite in resistance to President Trump’s sanctions?” she asks. “The same analysts who missed November’s protests are now predicting Iranians will rally around the flag.” So is Rand.
One last thing. Note how careful Paul is, like Tucker Carlson, not to lay blame for targeting Soleimani on the man who actually gave the order to kill him. In a separate interview yesterday, he went so far as to say of the Soleimani operation, “I think that, basically, even though he let John Bolton go, this is John Bolton. John Bolton is clapping and jumping up and down and rubbing his hands together, because this is what he wanted, to take a dramatic action, to kill one of their main leaders.” We could end up invading Iran and paleocon Trump cronies will still be on TV yammering about the now-retired Bolton, the deep state, and whoever else they need to in order to shift blame to “the establishment.” How clever the neocons are to have duped the great nationalist hope into starting a war!