The decision to focus on Tehran’s proxies in the wake of the embassy attack was the right course.
As the New Year begins, it is abundantly clear that Washington’s policies designed to bend Iran to its will have failed. Yet Tehran’s’s recalcitrant responses have similarly failed to improve its own security, and the disastrous prospect of open war has drawn closer with recent events. This is truer than ever with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Trump administration had taken a step in the right direction with its recent focus on Iran’s proxies; it would be wise to return to this course.
Since April, when the State Department designated the IRGC and its special operations component, Soleimani's Quds Force, as foreign terrorist organizations, the United States and its allies have endured a series of setbacks and human losses. Iran seized a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, very likely attacked a Saudi oil facility, and shot down a U.S. drone. On Dec. 27, Iranian proxy Kata’ib Hizballah killed a U.S. citizen and wounded at least four others in a rocket attack in Iraq. Yet the year was hardly an unbridled success for Iran’s leaders. Protests have ungirded the regime at home and abroad, where its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq have suffered political setbacks.
Neo-conservatives who pine for aggressive action against Iran chafed in September, when President Trump called off a strike in retaliation for the drone downing, and again last week when he chose to strike Kata’ib Hizballah rather than Iran itself. Yet this turn from confronting Tehran directly toward increasing pressure on its proxies was the correct policy response.
That proportionate and well-conceived response was short-lived. The Jan. 2 targeted killing of Soleimani represents a dangerous escalation. Iran’s response will put U.S. assets, and likely innocent civilians, in harm’s way. The United States must turn to a mix of smart sanctions, surgical strikes, covert action, and proxy moves to keep steady pressure on Iran without exacerbating the situation.
First, the United States should coordinate multinational pressure on Iran’s primary proxy in Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Just as Tehran uses Lebanese Hizballah to exert influence in Lebanon, it uses AAH to do so in Iraq, where the group won seats in parliament in 2018. The United States should designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization and persuade Britain and other allies to add sanctions of their own. [A few hours after publication, the State Department designated AAH as an FTO and designated two of the group's senior leaders pursuant to Executive Order 13224.]
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is not the only group that the United States should target for multinational pressure. The United States should work to persuade more nations to undermine Iran’s best-known proxy, Lebanese Hizballah, through terrorist designations and financial sanctions. Last year, U.S. officials reduced the group’s ability to raise money in South America when they persuaded Argentina and Paraguay to label Lebanese Hizballah a terrorist actor; this year, they should persuade Brazil to do the same. The U.S. should also press governments in West Africa, another LH financial hub, to sanction and oust LH financial operatives.
Yet even as the United States increases its pressure on Tehran’s proxies, it must avoid similar action against Iran’s leaders. As I wrote in April with Ambassador Dan Benjamin, the IRGC designation led Iranian leaders to release the pressure it had imposed on its proxies, most notably Kata’ib Hizballah. Shortly thereafter, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could be attacked by Iran’s proxies. U.S. officials should not repeat this mistake by, for example, designating Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security as a foreign terrorist entity.
But there are other means. The United States should continue its covert actions to cripple Iran’s ability to constitute a nuclear program, including efforts to inject faulty parts into supply chains. The U.S. should also continue its cyber-attacks against Iran, like the one reportedly undertaken after the September drone downing. Finally, the U.S. should intensify pressure on Twitter and Facebook to take down Iranian government officials’ accounts. Iran’s leaders and state apparatus have used social media to destabilize other governments while blocking its own citizens’ ability to protest and organize. What the U.S. must avoid is the continued direct targeting or Iranian government personnel.
Finally, the U.S. should identify and use its own proxies to counter Iran’s influence, and particularly to block Tehran’s efforts to create a so-called “land bridge” to the Mediterranean. (The U.S. abandonment of the Kurds may make this more difficult.) One proxy to avoid is the Mujahdeen-e-Khalq, a group that State listed as terrorists until 2012. The MEK is reviled by the Iranian people and is best known for siding with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq wars. It’s also a group that killed Americans.
Only days ago, U.S. Embassy officials huddled in their saferoom in Baghdad as protestors chanted “death to America.” Now the United States has killed the leader of a powerful Iranian paramilitary force. Smart sanctions, discriminate targeted action against Iran’s proxies, and deniable cover action should be the first, second and last choices – not war.
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