It didn’t take long for Iran to retaliate for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Early Wednesday morning, two U.S. bases in Iraq were hit by missiles fired from Iran, an action Iranian officials termed payback for what Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described as the “cowardly armed attack” that President Trump ordered last week when he killed a top Iranian military officer.
It’s unclear how the Trump administration will respond to Iran’s attack. Even if the president restrains himself, it’s unlikely the tension between the U.S. and Iran will ease any time soon. As Reza Marashi — an Iran expert who served in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs under Presidents Bush and Obama, and later as the first research director the National Iranian American Council — explained to Rolling Stone shortly after Iran’s retaliatory attack, there are still options to de-escalate the situation, but it’s ultimately going to come down to the man in the White House: “This is going to go as far as Trump takes it.”
Prior to the attack, Rolling Stone spoke with Marashi at length about the significance of Soleimani’s assassination, U.S.-Iran relations under Trump, and what to expect from the Middle Eastern nation going forward.
Given that tension between the United States and Iran has been steadily escalating since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, how surprised were you by the move to assassinate Soleimani?
Anybody who tells you that they weren’t surprised that the Trump administration took out a senior-level foreign government official is lying. There are very few rules in international relations. One is that you don’t murder foreign government officials in broad daylight. You don’t do it. I think everybody was rightly surprised.
I would strongly encourage the people going around cheerleading this to eat a big slice of humble pie now so they don’t have to later. The reason I say that is that you might be excited now, but are you going to be excited when the Russians or the Chinese start doing this stuff? At the end of the day this gives a green light to any other country around the world — authoritarian or otherwise — that wants to start doing this stuff. They’re now able to point at the most powerful country in the world, the country that’s supposed to uphold the international order and be the standard-bearer for what’s right in the world, and say, If they can do it, why can’t we?
Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty terrifying precedent to set.
The arguments the administration has put forward about intelligence regarding “imminent” attacks Soleimani was planning don’t really hold water. This isn’t only because a variety of government officials have said this wasn’t so much the case. If preventing an imminent threat to American security was the metric for whether we should carry out a targeted killing of a senior foreign government official, then why haven’t we done it to Vladimir Putin? Why haven’t we done it to Xi Jingping? These guys present way more of a pressing, clear and present national security threat to the United States than Iran does. And yet we have enough sense, even inside the Trump administration, to know that would be a bone-headed and catastrophic course of action to pursue. But for some reason, when it comes to Iran logic and rationality go out the window.
The Trump administration has said Iranians are cheering Solemani’s death, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. How was Soleimani viewed by the Iranian people, and what kind of effect could this have inside the nation?
These guys in the Trump administration have no idea what they’ve done. Not just with regard to how it’s going to be perceived, processed, and operationalized by the Iranian government, but also by Iranian society. I’ll be the first to admit that in a country of 80 million people, not everybody is going to love or support Qasem Soleimani or the Iranian government at large. But I would venture to say most people respect and support him specifically. In the more general sense, I would say that contrary to the uninformed assertions of the Trump administration, this is going to kick off a rally-around-the-flag effect inside of Iran. It already has. The reason why that’s important is because just two months ago you saw protests in a variety of Iranian cities, with people protesting political, economic, and social aspirations that have long been unmet. Now it’s the opposite. It’s a rally-around-the-flag effect. Not only does the Iranian government feel like it’s under siege — and rightfully so; it’s been under siege for quite some time, both from an economic and military perspective vis-a-vis the United States — but now most Iranians are going to feel like they’re under siege. It kicks the country into war mode, into defensive mode.
Trump’s logic toward the situation seems to be that Iran is never going to anything truly significant because if they do the U.S. will just wipe them out militarily. Can you explain why this is a flawed way to think about relations with Iran?
You have 40 years of evidence to demonstrate that just because the United States is exponentially more powerful than Iran on the global stage — generally and when it comes to conventional military superiority — it doesn’t mean that if it does something it isn’t going to provoke a response. The Trump administration has said we needed to restore deterrence, we needed to restore leverage, we needed to restore credibility. These are the same tired and disproven arguments that hawkish individuals inside the U.S. government — both Republican and Democrat — have been saying about Iran since we invaded Afghanistan 18 years ago, and since we invaded Iraq 17 years ago. At what point do we say bullshit? I think it’s long-past time to do that.
Nobody doubts American superiority when it comes to military capabilities and ability to project power globally and within the Middle East, but I think honest individuals will acknowledge — Israel not withstanding — that Iran is the most powerful country in the Middle East. It’s achieved that level of power despite unprecedented levels of economic warfare, and it’s achieved it precisely because the Iranian government has realized it can’t match conventional American military superiority. Instead, it has predicated its national security on asymmetric warfare. When you look at Shia militias across the Middle East that Iran has built up, and what the United States government calls state sponsorship of terrorism, this is the Iranian government saying, “OK, you’re going to sanction us, you’re going to isolate us, you’re going to put on arms embargoes that prevent us from building up our military in the same way the Saudis and the Israelis and Emirates do? Then we’re going to utilize the only means that we have available to us.”
Can you expound a little on Iran’s asymmetric capabilities? Outside of conventional military action, what are some of the ways it could retaliate that the U.S. might not be prepared to counter?
You may think you’ve seen a militarized version of Iranian politics, but you haven’t. I would encourage everyone, both in the United States and outside of the United States, to buckle up, because you’re about to see it. What I mean by that is that Soleimani achieved in death what he could only have dreamed of achieving in life. The Iraqi government is on the precipice of kicking the U.S. military out of the country. We don’t know what the timeline is, but that more than anything else is the number-one goal of the Iranian government. It was the number-one goal before Soleimani’s death, and it remains the number-one goal, injected with steroids, after Soleimani’s death — removing U.S. military forces from countries that border Iran, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan, and by extension, Syria.
Do I think there will be a more specific and more tangible retaliatory attack of some sort on the United States? Yes, I do. But Iran has made it quite clear that it is going to be at a time and location of their choosing. It’s an interesting comment to me because it creates this sense of nervousness and urgency inside the U.S. government, and it doesn’t allow them to do the traditional contingency planning that most responsible government officials would like to do. But also it allows the Iranian government to capitalize on the internal response among the Iranian people, to consolidate at home and ride this wave of rallying around the flag. I think that is priority number-one, as well, to consolidate and solidify power at home so that if and when the time comes that they get sucked into a war that they independently seek to avoid, that they’ll have their people behind them.
You’ve posted on Twitter about how a lot of this is borne out of Trump advisers wanting to get “payback” on Iran for the disruptive role it played during the Iraq War, and Trump wanting undo Obama’s legacy, in this case the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. has obviously had a rocky history with Iran. Before Trump took office, though, what course were the two nations on with the nuclear deal? What was it accomplishing, outside of preventing Iran from sustaining its nuclear program?
The nuclear deal essentially hit the pause button on the cycle of escalation between the United States and Iran that was leading to a military confrontation. That’s where we were at the end of Obama’s first term and at the beginning of his second term. Then President Rouhani comes into office, somebody who had a longstanding track record of using diplomacy to resolve problems with the outside world more generally, and specifically with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. Foreign Minister Zaif comes into office, who has an outstanding track record of using diplomacy to solve problems with the outside world more generally, and specifically with the United States. A variety of other Iranian government officials that don’t often make the headlines in Western countries come into office who have a longstanding track record of arguing inside Iran’s national security apparatus to use diplomacy with the United States to resolve conflict. So the nuclear deal ends up happening and it hits the pause button on that cycle of escalation that was leading to war. This is a very good thing.
But the most important thing that it did is that it created a foundation for dialog on other points of contention between the two countries. You saw that playing out in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear deal getting done. You saw the United States and Iran tacitly working together inside Iraq in the fight against ISIS — which was being steered, ironically by Soleimani. You saw the U.S. and Iran conduct a prisoner swap that got Americas who were unjustly imprisoned inside of Iran released and reunited with their families. You saw the United States and Iran avert a crisis when American military officials inadvertently crossed into Iranian waters, were detained for 24 hours, and released. Can anybody in their right mind possibly argue that if American soldiers inadvertently crossed into Iranian waters now they’d be released in 24 hours? Of course not. We don’t even have the channels of communication to manage that kind of crisis, because the Trump administration needlessly abandoned those lines of communication.
You mentioned how the U.S. in effect worked with Iran to fight ISIS in Iraq. How could the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination affect that fight, especially considering American forces may soon be on their way out of Iraq.
I do think without American airpower, and when the United States withdraws troops and adjusts its presence inside of Iraq, it’s going to it’s going to make the fight against ISIS more difficult. But I also think that at the end of the day it provides an opportunity on two fronts. One, for the Iraqis to step up in a way we didn’t see them having them having the capability to do the last time ISIS was on the march. (Lest we forget it was Iran and Soleimani that were the first to arrive in Iraq with weapons and logistical support.) I also think it provides an opportunity for other actors in the international scene, perhaps Russia, to step up into the fight against ISIS, perhaps in Iraq. I don’t think it’s just going to be Iran and Iraq’s government fighting ISIS. I think that will continue, but I think someone else is going to enter the fray. All of this is fluid and people are waiting to see more details about what America’s expulsion from Iraq is going to look like. That will take shape sooner rather than later. It’s going to complicate the fight against ISIS, but it’s not going to make it impossible.
At some point in time we’re going to have to acknowledge that perhaps American troops in the Middle East are making things worse, not better. These problems didn’t exist prior to the arrival. ISIS didn’t exist prior to the arrival of American troops. The United States cannot indefinitely send troops to fight endless wars in various parts of the world. Wars have to end at some point. When you enter into a war you have no conceivable chance of winning, and a variety of smart people told you this before you did it, you’ve got to start asking yourself what the end game is here? What’s the goal? How is this in America’s national interests? What’s the strategy? What’s the policy? Nobody’s answering these questions, and the ones that try to are not providing good answers. At this point it’s just militarism for the sake of militarism. That never produces anything positive when it comes to America’s interests or America’s security.
It seems like the situation with Iran is a runaway train right now. As you mentioned, there are no real channels of communication, and Iran seems hellbent on retaliating for Soleimani’s assassination. Is there any real way to de-escalate this situation?
I can totally understand why it seems that way. But you’re talking to somebody right now that spent a number of years working at a place that was staffed by incredibly dedicated and very smart diplomats and public servants that taught me a very important rule when it comes to this kind of stuff: The door to diplomacy never really closes. Leaders in power always have the ability to take risks for peace and reach for that proverbial doorknob, even if the odds of success are low. Countries are always going to publicly talk about what their red lines are. I would say killing a senior government official with a drone strike is crossing a red line, but I would also say that sometimes red lines can become flexible lines. Otherwise there’s nothing to negotiate over.
Statecraft is all about choices. Trump is just habitually making bad choices, especially on Iran. American interests and American statecraft are consistently being damaged, in some ways irreparably. How do you take a step back from what seems like an unpreventable spiral toward war? The ball is in the Trump administration’s court. They’re the ones that escalated things in such a massive fashion, and it forces the Iranian government to respond in some way. It becomes a domestic political issue for them. If they don’t respond, they look weak at home and also look weak abroad. How do they prevent somebody else from doing this to them if they don’t respond? If you back a country like Iran into a corner, eventually they’re going to lash out so they can get out of the corner. Are there things the Trump administration could do? Absolutely. Do I think they’ll do them? No.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.