Iran strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ continues after the killing of Qassem Soleimani
President Trump has been remarkably consistent even if the rest of Washington hasn’t
Paul: Welcome to the Journal Editorial Report, I’m Paul Gigot. A new year and a new set of challengers for President Trump both at home and abroad. We begin in the Middle East with the Pentagon confirming Thursday night that the powerful commander of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad Airport. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling Fox on Friday that President Trump made a necessary decision.
[Video of Pompeo Statement]
Mark Dubowitz is Chief executive of the FDD, Welcome Mark good to see you again. SO i was reading your twitter feed and i noticed that you were saying that this killing of Soul might be more significant even than the killing of Osama bin Laden, how so?
Mark: Paul, Qassem Soleimani for 23 years has dominated the Mid East. I mean if you can imagine a combination of our joint Special Operations Commander with our Joint Chiefs of Staff with our CIA Director, Foreign Minister, or Secretary of State — you roll all that into one man and that Qassem Soleimani.
Paul: Really? So he had that much influence?
Mark: Huge influence, huge power. Really somebody to be admired for his prowess and his operational capacity as well as his tactical brilliance. I mean he really has created an enormous difficulties for US interests. As Sec. Pompeo said, he has American blood on his hand as well as the blood of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iranians and Lebanese and Iraqi. This is a consequential move by the president and president trump really deserves enormous credit.
Paul: Let’s talk about the impact in the Mid east. First of all the impact inside Iran. The Ayatollah Khamenei had said before this that the US could do nothing at all to stop what Iran did. Clearly he was wrong about that. But what happens next in Iran? Are they going to strike back here? They’re promising to do so.
Mark: Look, this was a severe blow to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. I mean, Soleimani was his left hand and his right hand. He was the second most powerful man in Iran after the Supreme Leader, answered directly to him, not through the chain of command. And so the regime is going to have to strike back and the real question is how and where? And they’ve certainly learned to their horror that President Trump unlike previous presidents was willing to enforce red lines, specifically a red line against taking US casualties. And so I think they’re gonna have to be very careful about striking out at US personnel or US interests. But again, their is to go after our allies, hit oil facilities, go after tankers, but Iraq will probably be the main battleground. They want to drive us out and if they can drive us out that certainly would be a testament to Soleimani and that was, after all, Soleimani’s objective — to drive the United States out of Iraq and out of the Middle East. I think that’ll be the main battleground.
Paul: But I guess the question they face is, do you really target Americans? Do you target our diplomats? Do you target our military troops that are on the ground? We have about 5,000 of them in Iraq. Because if you do and you end up killing Americans, the message from this attack on Soleimani is we will strike back and I assume that that would not be limited just to Iraq.
Mark: Well I think that’s exactly right. I mean I think President Trump has made that very clear again that he will enforce the red line against the taking of American lives. And so that kind of escalation would be enormously risky for the regime because they could be risking their military, they could be risking the survival of the regime itself. So again, their traditional playbook will maybe do everything short of that — go after US allies, go after the assets of our allies, go after energy resources. And inside Iraq, perhaps create massive demonstrations, rally these Shiite militias, and certainly work against us politically to try and force the Iraqi government to force us out of that country.
Paul: Right, but there’s a split point of view inside Iraq about the Iranian presence. I mean, some of the protests in recent weeks have been against the Iranian meddling in Iraq, although it is true that the Prime Minister denounced the American attack on Soleimani and so did the Ayatollah Sistani the Shiite leader. How do you see that playing out? I mean can we, do you think we’ll be able to maintain a presence inside Iraq?
Mark: It’s a good question, I mean you’re exactly right. I mean actually for months hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including especially Shiite Iraqis have been on the streets protesting against Iran, against Iranian imperialism, yelling ‘death to the dictator,’ ‘Iran out of our country.’ And so certainly Iraqi nationalism has been fueled by the heavy hand of Iranian imperialism in that country. So it may be very difficult for Iranians to rally the Iraqis around the Iranian flag. But again politically it’ll kill the enormous pressure, the popular mobilization unit which is banded together all these Iranian-backed Shiite militias has enormous influence in the Iraqi political system and in the Iraqi parliament. And so I expect that they will be to try and force this out politically and try to force the hand of the Iraqi politicians to defend Iran and defend Iraqi sovereignty and try to force us out of that country.
Paul: What’s the larger impact of this and then in the Middle East more broadly? Because there’s been real concern there particularly after the president’s pledge to get out of — impulsive move to get out of Syria twice which he’s twice taken back, but maybe he wants to get out. Does this send a reassuring message to some of the rest of the region?
Mark: Look, I hope it does and I think it should, but it really depends on President Trump’s next move. I mean how does her respond to regime’s escalation? How does he respond to more violent attacks against our allies? If the message is you can go after our allies as long as you don’t kill Americans, they’re not going to be reassured. If the message is, “the United States is here to stay in the Middle East, we’re going to be very selective but very deadly about how we use military force. We’re not going to have a huge footprint, but the footprint we have will be there to defend US interests and US allies,” then I think it’s quite a devastating blow to the regime in Iran which did not expect this from Donald Trump.
Mark: It certainly did not expect this. I mean, I think no one expected this from Donald Trump. I mean it was only, you know, two months ago that I was calling Donald Trump a Twitter tiger —
Mark: — and now I take it back. I mean I commend him for doing what no other US president in 23 years was willing to do, which is to take out this master terrorist. So I think Donald Trump’s next move is going to be the very important move. And that’s the move that our allies and our adversaries will be looking at.
Paul: All right. Mark Dubowitz, very instructive. Thanks for coming in.
Mark: Thanks so much for having me, Paul.
Brooke: Mark Dubowitz is the CEO for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark, thank you so much for coming on. I wanted to talk to you specifically because you and your organization know all too well what it’s like to be a target of Iran’s, and I know, I’ve read your organization has described this as a badge of honor. I know that you through this ordeal were in touch with the FBI. What was it really like to have that kind of bullseye on your back?
Mark: Well Brooke, thanks for having me on. Yeah, Brooke look, it was obviously very concerning when the leading state sponsor or terrorism that’s been responsible for assassinations and terrorist campaigns around the world for decades puts a bullseye on your back and believes that a guy who runs a think tank represents a national security threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, we’re obviously hardening our defenses, we’re in touch with the FBI, we’re taking it seriously. But we’re also redoubling our efforts to explain to Americans why this is such a dangerous and threatening regime.
Brooke: So since you have that experience, I mean you know, you’ve seen what’s happened, you’ve also tweeted that Soleimani’s death is bigger than the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and you also called him “irreplaceable.” So given that you have experienced first hand Iranian retaliation and given the stakes now, what kind of consequences could the U.S. be facing here?
Mark: Well obviously, the consequences could be quite severe. Iran has been at war with us for forty years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Unfortunately, we haven’t taken that war as seriously as we need to. I mean they’ve obviously killed and maimed thousands of Americans as well as hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners and Europeans and others. Their abilities in the Middle East are quite profound and Qassem Soleimani really represented that. I mean, he was in some respects a combination of the CIA director, the Foreign Minister or Secretary of State, and the commander of Joint Special Operations Command. He had all those roles together and so he really was uniquely and profoundly important to the Islamic Republic. I think their ability to strike back at us will be undermined by his death but they certainly retained some pretty waring capabilities.
Brooke: I suppose the obvious question is, you know, is this administration prepared to handle it. Because you have worked with this White House in the past, do you think they have a plan for whatever the next steps may be?
Mark: Yeah, I’ve worked with three administrations on Iran policy and certainly three administrations have had plans they’ve also seen those plans go out the window as they face increased Iranian escalation. I think this administration has a plan, it’s called maximum pressure. I think they’ve been implementing it that plan quite vigorously over the past three years and I think what we saw, which was surprising, a couple days ago is that the maximum pressure campaign which had really been an economic campaign with doubling down on the sanction’s pressure, has now turned into one using military pressure and has turned into one using military force and trying to reestablish the military deterrence that I think had been so significantly undermined over the past three, if not more, administrations as we didn’t respond to Iranian violence with proper measures and proper deterrence.
Brooke: So that sounds like we don’t know. We don’t know, only the administration knows if we have a plan moving forward and what that retaliation may look like. Mark Dubowitz, thank you so much, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. I appreciate your insight.
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