Don’t Swim in the Threat Stream

After trudging through the chaos and dysfunction that was 2020, it’s still shocking to think there was once a moment during the early days of last year where the thing we were all worried about was the imminent possibility of war with Iran.

That fear was the product of the January 3, 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was, short of a head of state, as significant a figure as they come in global politics and conflict. As head of the IRGC Qods Force, he directed numerous Iranian operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. His success on the battlefield over a multi-decade career engendered an almost mythical aura about him. After all, how many Middle Eastern military figures rise to the status of household name in the West?

Since his death, Soleimani has been immortalized in various ways, including billboards, statues, a postage stamp, and at least one extremely bizarre panorama. In recent weeks, however, there has been intensifying speculation that these commemorations might take on a more kinetic form.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on this trend, noting how tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated in recent weeks leading up to the one year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination. One senior defense official, who was not named, expressed concern over an Iranian retaliatory attack, saying, “I would tell you that the threat streams are very real.”

As is typical with this genre of bland insinuation by nameless and faceless officials, the supporting details aren’t really there. Beyond a mention of Iran trafficking “advanced conventional weaponry” into Iraq — something they’ve been doing consistently for well over a decade now — there isn’t any tangible evidence that Iran is planning an attack in homage to their fallen hero’s memory. Naturally, our anonymous official cites security classification concerns while declining to offer any specifics, practically inviting the listener to fill in the blanks with their prejudices about Iranian intentions. Absent that evidence, the idea that Iran is “Up to Something” seems based on the generally accepted belief that Iran is an ideologically-driven menace dead set on creating chaos and destruction wherever they can. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

That we’re even talking about the possibility of an Iranian-led provocation is as much an indictment of the media ecosystem as it is the garbage-speak spewing officials spouting off about threat streams. If the current rhetoric is reminiscent of anything, it’s the vague warnings of imminent attack that allegedly served as justification for the Soleimani assassination a year ago. (If you want to go back further, you could say something similar about the rationale for the Iraq War in 2003, although at least the Bush administration respected our intelligence enough to fabricate their evidence.) Then, as now, there was supposed “intelligence” pointing to Iranian plans for complex operations against U.S. interests in the region. Then, as now, no one was allowed to see any of it.

In reality, the Islamic Republic does not have much to worry about at the moment, at least in terms of external threats. They hold the upper hand in Iraq, Bashar al Assad is firmly in control of the majority of Syria, and Trump is on his way out the door in less than three weeks. Even their self-appointed nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looks to be in real political peril for the first time in years (although bet against him in the next election at your own risk).

The coronavirus has indeed done considerable damage to Iran, but that hardly makes them unique among the nations of the world. Trump’s woefully misguided “maximum pressure” sanctions have heightened economic and medical problems, particularly for ordinary Iranians, the very people Trump and his cronies claim to care about, but they have not come close to imperiling the regime.

Since Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election in early November, Iranian officials up to and including the Supreme Leader have been explicit in their willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, also known as the Iran Deal, should Biden first recommit the United Stares to upholding its obligations under the agreement. Implicit in these statements is an acknowledgment of the differences Tehran sees between Biden and Trump. While they don’t exactly trust the incoming administration, there is at least a recognition that Biden will be easier to work with than Trump was.

Considering Iran’s strategic position, it seems unlikely that Iran will be the one to start a shooting war in the next couple of weeks. To date, there has still not been any apparent retaliation for the allegedly Israeli-led assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, on November 27. Despite Iranian avowals of revenge, that retribution is unlikely to materialize, if it ever does, before January 20, lest they disrupt the already tenuous transfer of power currently underway in the United States.

Instead, all eyes should be on what Trump does in his final fortnight and a half in office. As he lashes out in an ongoing attempt to cling to power and salt the earth for his replacement, igniting an international firestorm may seem like a viable, even attractive, option. So if any American defense officials are still out there searching for fresh threat streams, they may want to start looking in their own backyard.

Iran hasn’t changed, even if the United States has

Hope springs eternal with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The grass is greener, the sun brighter, the air…well, let’s not talk about what’s in the air. At least the vaccines are rolling out.

Within the political realm, nowhere is this optimism more apparent than in the foreign policy arena. As the Biden team continues to take shape during the transition, the abundance of experience of its members has generated a hope, if not an expectation, that we may soon return to something resembling a status quo ante-Trump. Traditional alliances will be strengthened, reputations restored, agreements reentered, and so on.

Sitting atop the pile of foreign policy detritus accumulated during the Trump years is the JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal. Once the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice President for eight years, Trump and his cronies spent the past four years steadily dismantling the agreement and any semblance of Iran-U.S. trust along with it. Today, the agreement exists in little more than name only.

During the campaign, Biden made clear that a restoration of the deal would be a top priority for his administration. Since his victory, statements by prominent Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have bolstered the belief that a resurrection of the deal may be in the offing.

But while the headlines may be encouraging, the reality is somewhat more prosaic. Unlike Obama’s victory in 2008, Biden’s triumph over Trump is not likely to be seen as a global transformative moment. It is, undoubtedly, a necessary step back from the brink, but Biden will not be winning any Nobel prizes solely based on what he represents. With a global pandemic still raging and economic hardship along with it, things will still be very bad when Biden takes office on January 20. This is doubly true for Iran, which has not only been among the nations hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, but has also spent four years as one of the prime targets of Trump’s ire. Yet despite all they have endured, Iran has remained relatively resilient and steadfast in its beliefs, particularly regarding the JCPOA. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think that Biden’s victory has dramatically altered the playing field.

Looking a bit closer at the recent statements by Rouhani and Khomeini, it quickly becomes clear that not only is the Iranian position highly coordinated, it’s also the same one they have espoused since Trump left the deal in May 2018. The Iranian position is simple: the United States was the first to leave the deal and violate its commitments. Therefore, it must be the first to return. When the U.S. does this, the Iranians say, they will move back into compliance with the JCPOA. Presumably, this means rolling back the systematic breaches and extensions to the Iranian nuclear program they have implemented since the American departure.

Using oddly similar language — a clear signal of their coordination on the topic — both Khamenei and Rouhani said that all Biden needs to do is return to the deal, and “within an hour,” Iran will follow suit. Khamenei tied this act directly to the removal of sanctions, noting that “if sanctions are lifted…we should not delay.” Khamenei also reaffirmed his belief that the United States under Biden will still be antagonistic towards Iran. “My firm recommendation is not to trust the enemy,” he said.

The Iranians have been similarly clear on maintaining the scope of the original agreement. Any extension or renegotiation of the JCPOA’s terms remains strictly off limits for the Iranians. They repeated this position ad nauseam prior to and during the early stages of the Trump administration, when the narrative surrounding the JCPOA was mostly concerned with whether or not Trump would deploy his supposedly legendary dealmaking abilities to tackle what he called on the 2016 campaign trail “the worst deal ever.” In response, Iranian officials repeatedly said that Iran’s national defense, including its missile program, is not on the table. Similarly, the Iranians ruled out the possibility of extending the deal in any way to cover other areas of disagreement beyond the nuclear file, such as Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Understanding the nuances of the Iranian position will be key for Biden if he wants to gain a foothold for improving relations with Iran. To date, his official position suggests several slight but significant distinctions. His September 13 op-ed for CNN, for example, reverses the order of operations proposed by the Iranians, conditioning American participation in the deal on an Iranian return to “strict compliance.” Likewise, Biden suggests that this will prove a starting point for follow-on negotiations, in which the United States will, in conjunction with its allies, “work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

To have any real shot at success, Biden will need to act quickly. The hardline parliament that took over following the February 2020 elections recently passed legislation aimed at increasing tensions with the U.S. through an expansion of the nuclear program. The measure is a response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in late November. Many parliamentarians celebrated the bill’s passage with the familiar refrain of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” the chanting of which has become somewhat commonplace recently. Rouhani’s government officially opposes the legislation, and the Supreme Leader’s position on the matter is not yet known, but with presidential elections looming in June 2021, this regression to direct provocation may become the norm.