Iranian-sponsored Shia militia have stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, outraged that we dared respond to their killing of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack on a U.S. base. Iranian vessels in swarms are shadowing a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has directed his security officials to “do whatever it takes” to crush dissent at home. At least 1,500 people have been killed by government forces in Iran to date, and the slaughter continues.
This is the true face of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not as Barack Obama would have had us believe, a regime seeking understanding and a place at the table with the other civilized nations of the world. It is an evil, despotic entity dedicated to radical expansion of its ideology abroad and the brutal crushing of any dissenting voices at home. As we search for a way ahead in our policy toward Iran, we would do well to keep that vision in mind.
Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” has well defined American foreign policy for many years. It is our preference always to exhaust non-military means of resolving disputes before turning to the use of armed force.
There is another element implied in the saying that perhaps gets less attention than it should, however. It is that the willingness of your adversary to listen to what you have to say is often directly proportional to how big he perceives your stick to be and how willing he believes you are to use it. He needs to see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it.
Clearly, the Iranians have no such understanding at present. In response to President Trump’s threat of dire consequences for the storming of our embassy in Baghdad, in fact, Khamenei responded. “You can’t do anything. If the Islamic Republic decides to challenge and fight, it will do so unequivocally.”
This is the reality. After a series of unprovoked sabotage attacks on oil tankers and Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, in mid-September Iran launched a massive barrage of missiles and drones on Saudi oil processing facilities. Five percent of the world’s oil production was halted. Oil prices worldwide surged 20 percent.
We did, effectively, nothing to respond to this attack on a key American ally. We have, to this day, continued to do essentially nothing of consequence in response. The recent limited attacks on Kataib Hezbollah facilities will have no lasting impact and probably suggests more in the way of a lack of resolve than anything else.
Iran cannot be allowed to continue to act with impunity. It must be made to pay a price, and one that is meaningful. If we avoid exacting that price, we are not only encouraging follow-on attacks, but we are sending a very dangerous signal of weakness to our allies in the Middle East and around the world.
In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about the movement of additional American troops and assets to the Middle East to counter Iranian aggression. There is now a flurry of activity as we shift quick reaction forces to the region in response to the threat to our embassy. What there has not been is a statement of the policy framework within which we will act, one calculated to force Iran to modify its behavior or face unacceptable consequences.
Iran needs to know we will not allow further attacks to go unpunished. We will not respond to future attacks with pro forma attacks on limited numbers of insignificant Iranian assets in some quest for proportionality or a “response in kind.”
If Iranian missile batteries attack U.S. forces or key U.S. allies, those missile batteries will immediately cease to exist as will the supporting units and command and control centers involved in the deployment of those missiles. If Iranian forces or proxies attack our personnel those forces they will be hit, as will every Iranian element involved in the attacks. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps headquarters that directed those attacks will be taken out.
Commanders of operations directed at our forces are combatants, every bit as much as are the men and machines they send to attack us. No one will be safe from our retaliation, nor will any site or facility be deemed off limits.
The means employed in our responses will depend on what we decide is most advantageous to us. When that decision is an overt American military response, then so be it. When it is more beneficial and cost effective to respond using more clandestine means, then we will act accordingly. A pipeline rendered inoperable by a surreptitiously-placed explosive charge is just as broken as one hit by a bomb.
Billions of dollars stashed in European bank accounts by members of Iran’s kleptocracy are just as gone whether they are legally seized or the bank’s servers are simply hacked. The ayatollahs will know what just happened and why, and they will understand the message.
Americans are more than happy to speak softly. But we also carry a very big stick, and we should not be afraid to use it.
• Sam Faddis is a former CIA operations officer with experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.
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