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Putting the Iran Assassinations in Context

The killings—believed to be Israeli operations—suggest what U.S. allies feel they have to do when the U.S. won’t confront Iran.
December 2, 2020
Putting the Iran Assassinations in Context
A huge mural of Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei Iran's Supreme Leader painted next to a smaller one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (R) seen on Motahari street on March 8, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. The message on the wall reads "The power and influence and dignity of America in the world is on the fall and extermination" and on top of the building, another slogan reads "We are standing till the end". (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

Last week, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in Damavand, a city near Tehran. This is a resumption of sabotage operations against Iran from the spring and summer, and Israel is almost certainly the perpetrator. More recently, there are also unconfirmed reports that an airstrike killed a top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the Iraq-Syria border.

Commentators on the left side of the political spectrum rushed to criticize these attacks, inferring that they are designed to sabotage the incoming Biden administration’s expected attempt to return to the Obama administration’s Iran deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) to delay Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the point.

The dynamics in the Middle East have changed. Within a decade, the region has become unrecognizable. Iran is on the march, and jihadi Salafism is not contained, forcing an Arab-Israeli alliance of last resort.

For over a decade, many progressives—and some of their allies among the libertarians and the isolationist right, like Rand Paul—have wanted to withdraw from the Middle East. They were successful in preventing the sympathetic Obama administration from intervening in the civil war in Yemen. They have also been critical (often deservedly) of how the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have conducted that war in Yemen and have demanded an end to sales of U.S. military equipment to the two countries. Some of the equipment that the United States allowed the Saudis and Emiratis to buy, including precision-guided munitions, was intended to make their warfare more humane.

There is a paradox here: American progressives don’t want the United States to defend the interests it shares with its allies, but, when America’s influence is absent, they don’t want our allies to defend our shared interests on their own, either. Yet it is precisely the lack of American influence that has allowed for the Middle East’s worst human rights abuses, including by our Arab allies, and its most serious threats to American security.

Americans are correct to criticize the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen. It is certainly inhumane when compared to the way the United States and its allies conduct war. But it is no more inhumane than Iran’s conduct in the region. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has been a force of death and destruction, including for half a million Syrians, with millions more displaced. President Obama, despite the advice of his top lieutenants, refused to get involved in Syria and opted for a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry argued in favor of a military response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in transgression of the Obama administration’s red line, advising that military action “is directly related to our credibility, and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something.”

President Obama ignored this advice. As Kerry predicted, Obama’s passivity was a signal to the region (and the world) that American deterrence was no longer credible. It created an opening for Iran to deploy its military for direct combat beyond its borders for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

The Trump administration, for its part, has not been much better. Last year, the president aborted an airstrike mission against Iran in retaliation for the downing of an expensive American UAV in international airspace. The United States also never responded to Iran’s attack against Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facility. The problem with Trump’s Iran strategy is that he never had one, and this added to U.S. allies’ worries.

Iran’s deployment of its military overseas has caused America’s allies no shortage of concern. Iran’s military is now deployed is now in Syria, which shares a border with Israel. It is in Iraq, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Shi’ite proxies are fighting on one side of the civil war in Yemen, which shares a border with southern Saudi Arabia, and which is where Saudi Arabia’s Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite separatists live. Add to this Iran’s continuing threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow naval channel that connects the Persian Gulf to the Sea of Oman. Saudi Arabia and the UAE rely on the channel for their oil exports.

U.S. allies have legitimate concerns about Iran’s revanchism; they are trying to address those concerns because the United States is not. But Americans, too, should be concerned by Iranian revanchism because, even though the United States is oil-independent, U.S. consumers still rely on imported products from countries that import Middle Eastern oil, and a disruption in oil prices will negatively affect the U.S. economy and consumers.

And there are larger forces than mere economics at play. The Syrian civil war didn’t mark just the Iranian military’s first expedition in a generation. It also marked the return of the Russian military to the Middle East for the first time since 1972. That is not a cause of concern for our allies in the immediate future, but it is for the United States. China and Iran are close to signing a deal that will allow China to establish a military base in the Persian Gulf, bringing the Chinese military to the region for the first time in history. Both China and Russia are warming relations with our Middle Eastern allies because our allies are worried that we might abandon them. This should worry us.

America’s involvement in the Middle East is costly, but the alternative is yet more expensive. American withdrawal is proving to be much costlier in strategic terms, economic terms, and in terms of human suffering. And, as was the case of Iraq, where the rise of the Islamic State required the return of previously withdrawn American forces, failing to address security challenges early only allows them to grow.

Israel’s sabotage operations might very well complicate things for the incoming administration, but the Obama and Trump administrations’ withdrawal from the region has left Israel with no other option. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the same position. These American allies and partners are not acting out of mere self-interest but rather out of self-preservation, as they see Iran, especially with nuclear weapons, as an existential threat. And when countries believe their very existence is at stake, international law and concerns for humane conditions in other countries come to be seen as niceties that can no longer be afforded. America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East is turning the region into a Hobbesian state of nature. Naturally, Middle Eastern states are turning into Hobbesian actors.

Alliance management is the most difficult task of diplomacy, and it is ever more difficult when the alliance’s leader signals its departure from the region. The last two American administrations have allowed the Middle East’s problems to grow almost unabated and the Middle East’s chief aggressor to go largely unchallenged. If American progressives don’t like the way America’s allies conduct their warfare, they should endorse the only serious alternative.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.