Donald Trump’s Iran problem

The Newyorker | Robin Wright: The killing of General Qassem Suleimani has undermined the Trump Administration’s top goals in the Islamic Republic.

On September 19, 1983, during Lebanon’s long civil war, the Reagan Administration ordered Marine peacekeepers in Beirut to open fire on Muslim militias in the mountains overlooking the city. The marines had been deployed for more than a year, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, to help hold together one of the world’s most fractured states. Colonel Tim Geraghty, their commander, warned that an attack would cost the United States its neutrality and its mission; nevertheless, U.S. ships fired more than three hundred rounds of seventy-pound shells. Geraghty later wrote, “As the sun set at the end of a tumultuous day, I remarked to members of my staff that my gut instinct tells me the Corps is going to pay in blood for this decision.”

On October 23rd, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with twelve thousand pounds of explosives into the peacekeepers’ barracks. Two hundred and forty-one Americans died. The largest loss for the corps in a single incident since Iwo Jima was carried out by a Lebanese group that became Hezbollah—but it was orchestrated by Iran. Washington ordered U.S. warplanes to destroy an Iranian military post in Lebanon, but called off the strike. The marines moved to underground containers; a few months later, they sailed home, their mission abandoned. “The Iranians’ goal was to remove the marines and Western influence,” Geraghty recalled last week. “And they did.”

The United States proved in 1983 that it had a tactical advantage, but Iran proved that it had a more wide-ranging strategy—as it has demonstrated repeatedly through the years. The next four U.S. Presidents avoided a military showdown with the Islamic Republic, even as its strategic advance across the region deepened. The risks and the potential complications were deemed too great. President Trump has said that he, too, has no desire for war, yet he started the new year with a drone strike that killed General Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, while he was on a trip to Baghdad. Trump tweeted that Suleimani “has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more.” Amid debate in Washington about the intelligence used to justify the strike, Trump said that Suleimani had planned to bomb four U.S. embassies, but the Administration presented little evidence to support the claim.

Trump’s decision has already had sweeping consequences—for the regional military balance, the campaign against ISIS and Al Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear program, and the unnerving political dysfunction in the Middle East. The Iraqi parliament, infuriated that Washington had violated the country’s sovereignty, voted to expel five thousand U.S. troops. Seventeen years after the U.S. invasion, the presence of American troops is suddenly precarious; so is the fractured government of Iraq, after months of protests demanding its ouster. The U.S.-led campaign against ISIS—which still has fourteen thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria—was suspended. The Pentagon disavowed a leaked letter that outlined the “repositioning” of U.S. troops. But, on Friday, Baghdad asked Washington for a road map for withdrawal.

The Trump Administration’s top two goals in Iran have also been undermined. For decades, successive Presidents have sought to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. By 2013, the regime was within weeks of being able to build a bomb—the so-called breakout time. In 2015, the Obama Administration, along with five other major powers, brokered the Iran nuclear deal, which limits aspects of Tehran’s program for up to a quarter of a century, and permanently insures international inspections. The breakout time was stretched to more than a year. But, on January 5th, two days after the killing of Suleimani, Iran said that it would no longer limit the number of centrifuges for enriching uranium. The nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned in May, 2018, on the ground that he wanted something broader, is now unravelling. Iran’s breakout time has begun to tick down again.

For two years, the Trump Administration has also exerted “maximum pressure,” through sanctions and isolation, to force new concessions from Tehran. It boasted of its success in November, when protests against Iran’s ­deteriorating economy and bad governance erupted across the country; the regime killed hundreds of people, and injured and jailed thousands more. But the assassination of Suleimani reignited nationalism in Iran; millions of people turned out to mourn the General’s death and to rally around the theocracy. Last Tuesday, Tehran retaliated by firing more than a dozen missiles at two military bases used by U.S. forces in Iraq. No one was killed in the attack, and Washington and Tehran both signalled that they wanted to avoid escalation, but the prospects for diplomacy grew more distant. (In an unintended consequence, Iran also appears to have shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane taking off from Tehran, killing the hundred and seventy-six people on board.)

Iran’s goals remain what they were in 1983. “Military action like this is not sufficient,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said of the missile strikes. “What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region.” And Tehran is much more capable today. It has evolved into the world’s leading practitioner of “gray zone” activities—covert and unacknowledged military operations, proxy attacks and cyberwar—Michael Eisenstadt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said last week. “The United States has struggled to respond effectively to this asymmetric way of war.”

Iran also has time and geography on its side. “We are historic interlopers. We come and we go,” Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group, said. “The notion that we could sustain our forces in a multifront, multi­year, unpredictable struggle in the Middle East—given the politics in this country, and the fact that most Americans don’t think this is of vital interest—is illusory.” On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 224 to 194, largely along party lines, to limit the President’s powers to make war on Iran. A similar resolution is expected in the Senate. Neither would be binding, but both reflect anxiety in Washington about the consequences of further hostilities.

The Islamic Republic marks its forty-­first anniversary next month. Historically, Washington has been able to inflict greater pain, but Tehran has shown a greater capacity to absorb it. The United States has figured out how to react to a militia or to kill a commander, but it still hasn’t figured out how, creatively or proactively, to deal with the nation of Iran. ♦
Published in the print edition of the January 20, 2020, issue, with the headline “Consequences.”