Two weeks after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s foreign operations and the Qods Force, Iran’s political subversion unit, tensions are winding down. Despite doomsday predictions, Iran chose not to escalate violence further. The limited Iranian response came in the form of a barrage of missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq, and did not results in Iraqi or American deaths; the missiles were a face-saving act designed to avoid escalation.
Opinion | Your Partisanship Is Blinding You To The Truth About Iran
According to a senior official in the office of the supreme leader of Iran, the leadership chose “the weakest scenario,” providing prior warning to Iraq which was conveyed to U.S., allowing the American soldiers stationed at the Ayn al-Assad base to take cover in underground bomb-shelters. And immediately after the strike, Iran notified the United States, through Swiss government mediators, that they do not intend to retaliate further. And Iran’s leadership, always keen to accuse Israel of various real and imaginary crimes, even made sure to avoid blaming Israel for involvement in Soleimani’s assassination, in an apparent attempt to avoid entangling Iran in a second front.
But to anyone following the news via liberal media outlets , pundits and politicians, this would have come as a big shock. For it was partisanship, not clear-headed analysis, that ruled the day in the coverage of Soleimani’s killing and the aftermath.
It went beyond the wall-to-wall predictions that World War III was upon us in the wake of the Trump Administration’s attack. Liberal media broadcasted videos of the large funeral processions for Soleimani, blaming Trump for uniting Iranians by killing Soleimani.
And yet, when anti-regime protests erupted yet again in Iran, this time due to the IRGC’s accidental downing of a passenger jet, killing 176 people on board, most of them Iranians, liberal media attention was sparse.
1. This AM I woke up to dozens of messages from family/friends in Iran
Right now, Iran is a tinderbox internally. As some of you know, there are protests mostly around the anger that Iranians feel towards the gov after they admitted IRGC shot down the Ukraine Airlines aircraft— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) January 12, 2020
But the partisanship extended even further, to the point of whitewashing Soleimani’s crimes. A man in charge of running a network of militias responsible for grusome torture, mass extra-judicial killings, ethnic cleansing and recruitment of refugee children was described by a U.S. congresswoman as merely a “foreign official.”
Swedish state TV calls Soleimani a “top diplomat” and @IlhanMN calls him a “foreign official.” There are many valid reasons to oppose the killing of Soleimani, but the man ran murderous militias & has more blood on his hands than Baghdadi & Bin Laden put together. pic.twitter.com/qCWRLLojUw— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) January 3, 2020
An MSNBC host equated Soleimani’s death to that of Elvis and Princess Diana, a particularly bizarre comparison. While Princess Diana worked to promote demining and save lives, militias run by Soleimani planted mines around besieged Syrian towns to ensure that those inside continued to starve and didn’t try to escape or smuggle food inside.
The Democrats appear to be guided by the belief that Iran’s misbehavior can be addressed through diplomacy alone. And while Obama successfully achieved an arms control treaty with Iran, the JCPOA, this came at a price of ignoring Iranian expansionism and human rights abuses at home and abroad. It seems that in the eyes of many Democrats, any use of force against Iran is too risky, even though the U.S. is dealing with a significantly weaker foe, which clearly can be deterred. In truth, the leadership in Tehran prioritizes survival above all else, similarly to other authoritarian regimes. The Iranian regime is not suicidal and knows that launching an escalatory attack that would lead it down the path of war with the United States may end with its overthrow.
Democrats should be the party championing liberal universal values. And yet, they increasingly perceive Iranian expansionism, which props up brutal and corrupt elites in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as a fait accomplit, and even a legitimate desire by a regional superpower.
On the other side of the aisle, the Trump administration and the hawkish wing of the GOP suffer from the reverse problem. They devalue diplomacy and see economic pressure and occasional military action, which do not cohere into a clear strategy, as the only solutions.
The assumptions underlying the current inconsistent U.S. policy are misguided. Some in the Trump administration seem to believe that the regime in Iran is weak and can be “rattled” to create internal fissures that would undermine its hold on power.
It’s true that the regime faces a growing legitimacy crisis. The economic situation in Iran is deteriorating and the widespread protests in November were the deadliest in Iranian history, with regime forces killing about 1,500 protesters. And yet, the regime continues to maintain hundreds of thousands of ideologically committed IRGC servicemen and volunteers (known as the Basij) ready to kill to preserve the Islamic Republic in power.
The military pressure and suffocating sanctions now being brought to bear against Iran will not produce any results unless the Trump administration adopts a clear set of realistic goals, aiming to minimize Iranian abuses and home and threats it poses abroad. Such a strategy must entail working with regional and European allies and parties that are able to engage Tehran, after the U.S. undermined its credibility by withdrawing from the JCPOA.
A U.S. policy that combines diplomacy, economic pressure and clearly defined red lines that would trigger a U.S. military response has the potential to successfully tame Iranian adventurism in the region. Diplomacy alone can not work with such a rogue regime, but neither will arbitrary military action without any defined end-goal.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute focusing on the Levant. Follow her @Elizrael.