The Undeclared War Against Iran
Paul R. Pillar / Responsible Statecraft
(July 14, 2020) —A series of violent attacks, involving explosions and fires, has been hitting Iran. The incidents have been too frequent and intense to be random accidents. They are part of an organized effort.
Caution is always advisable in attributing responsibility for such unclaimed acts, especially for all of us outside the government channels that possibly have better information about what is going on. But circumstances point strongly, as some mainstream press reporting reflects, to either or both of two suspects: the Netanyahu government in Israel, and the Trump administration in the United States.
Both of those suspects have track records that point that same way. The most conspicuous relevant act by the Trump administration was its assassination in January, with a drone-fired missile at the Baghdad airport, of Qassem Soleimani, one of the most prominent political and military figures in Iran.
The Israeli record of aggressive acts against Iran has included a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Those murders were part of a larger, longstanding Israeli campaign of assassinations throughout the Middle East. That campaign is in turn part of an even larger Israeli record of acts throughout the region — including, over the past couple of years, scores of aerial attacks in Syria.
Neither the Israeli government nor the Trump administration has formally declared war against Iran, but the rhetoric of each has stopped only slightly short of such a declaration. The Trump administration has made clear its intention to inflict as much pain as possible on Iran, including but not limited to economic sanctions. The Netanyahu government’s voluminous rhetoric on Iran has been every bit as hostile as what has come out of Washington, or as what has come in the opposite direction from Tehran.
Make no mistake about what is going on. This is not a set of actions “short of war,” as some would put it. It is war. We certainly should worry about escalation of the conflict into something so big that everyone would call it war. But that does not make what already has transpired anything less than acts of war.
In this regard, do not be deceived by the Iranian regime’s downplaying of the recent attacks and its restraint — so far — regarding retaliation. A date circled on Iranian policymakers’ calendars is January 20, 2021. The Iranians can read American polls, and the dominant thread at the moment in Iranian thinking about security policy is to tough it out until there is regime change in Washington. Iranian leaders don’t want to be suckered into the sort of October — or July — surprise that would generate a rally-round-the-flag effect in America and could rescue Donald Trump’s fading re-election chances, although they realize the restraint does risk making them appear weak.
No Justification for the War
Although the current war has not been formally declared, it ought to be assessed by the same standards as one that has. Per international law and the United Nations Charter, war would be justified only in self-defense, as a response to, or possibly pre-emption of, an attack in the other direction. That is not the current circumstance with Iran. There is no sign that Iran is about to attack either Israel or the United States. Given that Iran would be hopelessly outclassed militarily against either of those foes, it would be foolish for Iranian leaders to contemplate such an attack.
Nor does self-defense come into play when considering proxies or other asymmetric means through which Iran might want to impose its will. A salient aspect of the large amount of ordnance that Israel has been flying across the border and dropping on targets in Syria — many of those targets reportedly connected to Syria’s ally Iran — is how there has been almost no ordnance crossing the border in the other direction, other than an odd air defense missile or two.
The weakness of any US case based on self-defense was underscored by the confused official justifications for the killing of Soleimani. Hints dropped publicly about pre-empting a supposedly imminent Iranian attack never led to any evidence to that effect. In the end, the US administration’s rationale rested mainly on Soleimani’s past role in supporting Iraqi militia operations that incurred American casualties during fighting in Iraq. That fighting was a direct result of an offensive war — an act of aggression — that the United States launched in 2003.
Iran’s nuclear program has been a focus of attention in recent years, and one of the most publicized of the recent attacks on Iran was at the nuclear facility at Natanz. But the multilateral agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which placed severe restrictions on the Iranian program, did a far better job of keeping a possible Iranian nuclear weapon out of reach than anything the Trump administration has done since reneging on the agreement two years ago, after which Iran accelerated its nuclear activity. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies observes, the JCPOA did a better job in that regard than attacks such as the one on Natanz.
The attacks also do nothing to deter aggressive or otherwise undesirable Iranian actions. Deterrence requires conditionality: pain is inflicted after bad behavior and avoided after good behavior. But the US and Israeli governments seem determined to inflict pain no matter what Iran does — as underscored by the Trump administration’s reneging on the JCPOA and launching its “maximum pressure” campaign even though Iran was fully complying with its obligations under the agreement. Iran is being given an incentive only to retaliate, not to behave well.
Eventual retaliation, despite Tehran’s relative restraint so far, is one of the risks of the current undeclared war. Escalation into something bigger and more destructive is another risk. Even without such escalation, the current campaign extends indefinitely one of the fronts in America’s “forever war” in the Middle East.
Nor is any good coming out of the attacks in terms of weakening Iran or shifting a regional balance of power in America’s favor. Instead, it strengthens Iran’s reasons to find support from — and in so doing foster the influence of — the likes of Russia and China.
To the extent the Trump administration is condoning, turning a blind eye toward, or even colluding with Israeli attacks on Iran, this is bad news for US interests. US interests are different from those of Israel, and even more different from those of the current Netanyahu-led government.
That government has an interest in perpetuating high tension with Iran to keep Iran as a bête noire blamable for all the ills of the Middle East, to preclude any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, to promote Israeli relations with the Gulf Arab states, and to distract attention from issues that bring international scrutiny and criticism on Israel.
At the moment, Netanyahu’s incentives in this regard are stronger than ever, which may help to explain the timing of the recent wave of attacks. The distraction value of stoking the conflict with Iran has increased as Netanyahu contemplates formal annexation of parts of the West Bank and the international condemnation that will come with it.
Netanyahu also, like the Iranians, is aware of the US electoral calendar and American opinion polls. He may see the next few months as an optimal and limited time for stirring the regional pot even more than Israel has in the past, while his friend Donald Trump is still in power. To the extent the stirring helps his friend’s re-election chances, so much the better from his point of view.
Netanyahu is unlikely to be worrying about escalation into a bigger war, which would serve his purposes even more dramatically. Goading Iran into retaliating in a way that would spark such a war may have been one of the objectives of the recent attacks. And it would not be Netanyahu’s job to count any ensuing American casualties.
US Officials Speak at Iran Regime Change Conference
Conference hosted by controversial Iranian opposition group MEK
(July 19, 2020) — An exiled Iranian opposition group held its annual Free Iran conference online on Friday featuring speeches from an array of former US politicians and military officials. The conference was held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition led by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq), a controversial group widely considered to be a cult, and up until 2012, was designated as a terrorist organization by the US government.
The MEK is considered the top Iranian opposition group in Washington, and if Iran hawks had their way, the MEK would replace the current Islamic regime in Tehran. Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have appeared at events with MEK members. After the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January, it was reported that President Trump sought advice on Iran from MEK-linked allies, like his personal attorney and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani.
A frequent guest of the MEK, Giuliani spoke at Friday’s conference, calling for regime change and railing against the Mullahs. “To me, the mullahs are like the people who ran the mafia, the people I prosecuted who ran the mafia and extorted their people,” Giuliani said. The former mayor also praised Maryam Rajavi, the MEK’s leader. “Regime change in Iran is within reach. That’s the goal of NCRI and Maryam Rajavi.”
Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) also spoke at the conference, the only sitting members of Congress to attend. “Thank you to Madame Rajavi on everything she’s done. I want to encourage young people to continue your fight, your resistance … the people of the United States are with you,” Gooden said.
Other speakers from the US included former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former New Jersey Senator Robert Toricelli, and others. The MEK pays well for these short speeches. President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao collected $50,000 from the MEK for a five-minute speech in 2015. Although he was missing from this conference, former National Security Advisor John Bolton is a MEK favorite and has delivered many speeches to the group. Records show the MEK has paid Bolton at least $180,000 for speeches over the years.
From the MEK’s compound in Albania, in front of hundreds of screens, Rajavi addressed the conference. “Our first commitment is that we, the Iranian people and the Resistance, will overthrow the clerical regime and will reclaim Iran,” Rajavi said. “The final word is that the mullahs have no solutions and their regime is doomed to fall in its entirety.”
The MEK is now based out of Albania, but for many years they operated in Iraqafter the group was kicked out of Iran in the 1980s. The MEK started as a leftist organization in the 1960s and carried out attacks on the US-backed Shah’s police force throughout the 1970s. The group played a role in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah but ultimately opposed the new Islamic government and carried out major attacks against the Mullahs.
The MEK was welcomed into Iraq by Sadam Hussein, who gave them refuge at a military base, Camp Ashraf. From their base in Iraq, the MEK carried out terrorist attacks inside Iran and took Hussein’s side in the brutal eight-year war between Iran and Iraq war. For these reasons, it is believed the MEK has little or no support inside Iran today. The MEK is also suspected of being involved in assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that took place in 2012.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US government commissioned a report on the MEK from inside their former headquarters at camp Ashraf. The report concluded that, “many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labor, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options.”
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