‘Maximum pressure’ has been the crux of Trump administration policy towards the Iranian regime.
Withdrawing from the disastrous nuclear deal, reinstating tough sanctions, targeting top leaders of the regime, and forging the closest personal relationship ever between an American President and Israeli Prime Minister have been hallmarks of the ‘maximum pressure’ policy.
Easing up on those sanctions, extending waivers that allow continuation of nuclear work, and failing to respond promptly and harshly to escalating Iranian regime aggression sends entirely the wrong message to friend and foe alike. Precisely because of that ‘maximum pressure’ to date, Tehran is facing a collapsing economy, nation-wide popular uprising, open détente among Arab Gulf states and Israel, and massive street protests in Iraq and Lebanon, two of the regime’s key satraps.
Now is not the time to go wobbly, with talk about new negotiations or ‘changing the behavior of the Iranian regime.’ Now is the time to press our advantage in every way possible to bring about the collapse of that aggressive, oppressive, jihadist regime once and for all.
While ‘maximum pressure’ has caused deep economic hardship (that has fallen mainly on the Iranian people, not the regime), Tehran’s response has not been reconsideration of its course of action, but quite the opposite: belligerence and increasing willingness to respond to diplomatic and economic pressure with kinetic violence.
Attacks against commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf area, seizure of oil tankers and crews, and bringing down a U.S. drone escalated to cruise missile attacks by proxy militias in Iraq and Yemen, and finally to a direct act of war in September 2019 with the launch of a drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil facilities (and the global oil economy) from Iranian territory. Incredibly, all have gone completely without meaningful retaliation. This sends a perception of weakness to this Iranian regime: the West and even the tough Trump administration are eager to talk, not fight.
Meanwhile, as I wrote in these pages in August 2019, Tehran continues its calculated violations of the 2015 JCPOA. From increased amounts and levels of uranium enrichment to re-starting activities at the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor and revelations by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu about weaponization work at Abadeh, it is clear the Iranian regime never did negotiate in good faith and never will. Tehran’s incessant attempts to get precision-guidance missile technology into the hands of Shi’ite terror proxies — Hizballah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, Hashd-e Shaabi in Iraq — have been well-documented. In response, Israel acts forcefully and rapidly. The Israeli Defense Forces carry out regular air strikes against such weapons transfers and encroachment by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force, and Hizballah in Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and Iraq.
Even in the face of Israel’s stiff defense posture, Iran continues efforts to deploy precision-guided rockets and missiles throughout the Middle East including in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, as Israeli PM Netanyahu warned visiting U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in Jerusalem in late October 2019.
Whether aimed at Israel or Saudi Arabia, Iran’s intent is clear: to surround both with a menacing ring of proxy forces capable of striking anywhere in the region while maintaining some degree of plausible deniability. The sub-text of Netanyahu’s warning is also an alarming one: neither Israel nor the U.S. currently has an adequate defense against Iran’s cruise missile and drone capabilities — a reality that became glaringly obvious with the September 2019 Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia.
The IDF is on high alert and in late October 2019, the U.S. military reportedly began to relocate ‘sensitive elements’ (including the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group) out of range of those capabilities. Despite denials, it is reported that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is considering moving some air force and intelligence command units out of the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar (an Iranian partner) to Saudi Arabia. A little-noticed 24-hour exercise on September 28, 2019, practiced a rapid transfer of command and control from Al-Udeid to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
The Saudis are as alarmed as either Israel or the U.S.
Speaking at the London-based Chatham House think tank on October 21, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir asserted that “Iran, since the Iranian revolution, has been on a rampage.” He also admitted what no U.S. administration has yet been willing to say, namely that “after the 9/11 attacks and the attack against Afghanistan, the virtual board of directors of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden’s son, moved to Tehran and Iran gave them shelter.”
Iran is not modifying its behavior, backing down, or giving up. The editor of the regime’s Kayhan mouthpiece, Hossein Shariatmadari, has called for the “capture” of the U.S. and Saudi Embassies in Baghdad. On October 30, 2019, Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani flew into Baghdad and reportedly took control of a meeting on security from Iraqi PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi, saying “We in Iran know how to deal with protests. This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
Bottom line: in this neighborhood, perceptions matter. It’s either Strong Horse or Weak Horse. An impression of weakness given, intentionally or not, will be ten times harder to reverse than maintaining credibility and deterrence in the first place.
Please don’t go wobbly now, Mr. President.
Clare M. Lopez is VP for Research and Analysis at the Center for Security Policy. Previously a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and a member of Board of Advisors for Canadian Mackenzie Institute, she was named to Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign national security advisory team in 2016. Lopez served with Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi and now its successor, Citizens’ Commission on National Security. Formerly VP of Intelligence Summit, she was a career operations officer with Central Intelligence Agency, professor at Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies and Executive Director of the Iran Policy Committee from 2005-2006. Lopez received a B.A. in Communications and French from Notre Dame College of Ohio and an M.A. in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. She completed Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA, before declining a military commission to join the CIA. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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