As a young combat correspondent during the Boar War in South Africa, Winston Churchill observed in the aftermath of one battle “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Iran’s terror mullahs now know that when that battle involves state-directed — not simply state-sponsored — terrorists like Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani against U.S. forces fighting terror plots, there will be a result. Soleimani’s elimination by a U.S. Reaper drone this month met with approval from President Donald Trump supporters and overwrought complaining by his persistent critics.
In Iran, regime-orchestrated outrage by obeisant protesters was ordered up. Unfortunately for Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, regime-directed protests have been replaced with genuine ones led by people disgusted with economic hardship, official lies about the regime’s accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian civilian airliner and totalitarian repression. Many are calling for Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to resign. In the wake of this, what are the results that should grab our attention and Iran’s?
First, the Trump doctrine — on full display at the president’s news conference after the Soleimani attack — is working in Iran. That doctrine, which I term “Relentless Engagement,” seeks to isolate, engage, compel and resolve major foreign policy threats to world peace through an unambiguous articulation of U.S. objectives.
Consider Iran. The president has been quite clear about his objectives. Iran must end its missile and nuclear proliferation, military aggression, and acts of terror. Consistent with his doctrine, the president has successfully isolated Iran’s leaders internationally and has brought them to their knees with punitive economic sanctions designed to compel a non-military resolution.
Furthermore, Mr. Trump has demonstrated his willingness to employ the full range of U.S. national power, including strategic and tactical force projection as witnessed in his reinforcement of troops to the Gulf region and a precision strike against the terrorist Soleimani. Yet, the Trump doctrine also preserves an avenue to peaceful resolution through unconditional negotiations while making clear the U.S. dispute isn’t with the Iranian people but with its repressive leaders.
Consider his adroit message of Jan. 11, when he reminded Iranian protesters — in their native Farsi language — that America stands with them. “I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my Administration will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.” The president’s application of this doctrine and strategy refutes the petulant and vacuous rhetoric of his critics that he “has no strategy in Iran.” In fact, the result is his strategy is working.
Second, it should be clear by now that the Iranian regime is crumbling. It started with the Green Revolution of 2009 in response to election abuses, a profound opportunity horribly mismanaged by President Obama. The gasoline protests in the fall of 2019 — when many Iranians were slaughtered in the streets by the police and Revolutionary Guards — is irrefutable evidence of the regime’s persistent brutality over time.
Most recently, Iran’s disgraceful shoot-down of a Ukraine commercial airliner by feckless Revolutionary Guards and the overt lies from their leaders denying responsibility enraged conscientious Iranians, even provoking a popular Iranian Olympic tae kwon do medalist to defect in disgust. Now Iranians are openly calling for the resignation of the supreme leader and the president, resulting in more repression.
Third, it should also be clear that even if war erupts, Iran’s fate would be quickly sealed. The Iranian conventional military is insufficiently capable and ill-equipped. It depends on asymmetrical terror warfare executed by mercenary militia forces across the Middle East to advance their hegemony. Moreover, these surrogates are being badly squeezed by U.S. sanctions. The result? Neither Iran nor its surrogates can win a conventional war.
Finally, it’s important to understand that some red lines are redder than others. That has implications for how the United States chooses to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions or further attacks originating from within its territory or from extraterritorial mercenaries. Mr. Trump has laid down two prominent markers.
First, Iran will not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon. Second, if Iran kills an American through military action, that will result in military retaliation. However, an attack from a militia force or a suicide bomber acting alone and uncoordinated might require a limited response focused on specific perpetrators. The president understands the need for nuance and restraint here. Nonetheless, the result — unlike the water-colored redlines of the Obama administration — is Mr. Trump’s demarcations are a bit more indelible.
Iran is very fortunate that its Jan. 8, 2020, retaliatory missile attack from its territory on military bases in Iraq resulted in no American deaths. The U.S. response would have been a cataclysmic result for Iran. In that regard, Iran should understand that provoking the U.S. to violence will not result in “exhilarating” near misses, but devastating target hits.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter, a retired U.S. Army colonel, combat veteran and Middle East Foreign Area Officer, served in the Virginia General Assembly.
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