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.