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In recent comments to the media, the top US military commander in the Middle East said that Iran’s efforts to directly challenge Western powers have diminished since the killing of Qassem Soleimani. The late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force had been a central figure in Iran’s regional imperialism and the proliferation of Iran-backed terrorist groups. His death left a vacuum of leadership and interrupted plans that the US State Department believed would have made American personnel subject to “imminent” harm.
But Soleimani’s killing also forced the Islamic Republic to reconsider the comparative cost and value of its entire confrontational foreign policy strategy. “They’re having to recalculate what we’ll do and not do” said General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command. “They have seen we have the capability and the will to respond.”
Furthermore, they have seen this from multiple angles over at least the past two years. May 2018 marked America’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal and the start of a “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at forcing a series of fundamental changes in the Iranian government’s behavior. This strategy has been pursued predominantly through an ever-escalating package of economic sanctions, but the drone strike on Qassem Soleimani was a stark reminder of the other sorts of consequences Tehran may face if it persists in its refusal to negotiate.
Long before that military operation interrupted Quds Force operations, many US officials had expressed genuine confidence in the effectiveness of maximum pressure. McKenzie’s observations pointed to a pattern that had seemingly already begun. While Iran has at times stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric, its actual provocative actions have been less prevalent over the past two years than in the years preceding the Trump administration and the start of maximum pressure.
The IRGC’s naval forces have made fewer dangerous and unprofessional approaches of US warships, and the IRGC’s aerospace division has reduced its schedule of ballistic missile tests. And although the Iranian armed forces responded to Soleimani’s killing with a volley of missiles aimed at military bases housing American personnel in Iraq, the incident caused no fatalities. Many observers have speculated that the outcome was deliberate, with Iranian officials having made their plans ahead of time, thus giving the Americans an opportunity to prepare.
The missile strike underscored the fact that Tehran desperately wants to appear strong in the face of its global isolation. But it also revealed the mullahs’ fear of adversaries who are willing to answer the mere appearance of power with exhibitions of real power. Both of these observations point to a familiar conclusion about the nature of the Islamic Republic: that the only language it understands is the language of strength.
That conclusion has been a common refrain among Iranian expatriates who have weighed in on issues of Western policy toward the Iranian regime. Chief among them are activists for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a pro-democracy coalition that is led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. While the NCRI advises global policymakers, the PMOI remains active inside Iran, via “resistance units” that played a leading role in nationwide uprisings in both 2018 and 2019.
The NCRI has consistently endorsed policies akin to “regime change.” And in the wake of the recent uprisings, it has come to present such policies as more vital than ever. A full explanation of this view will be presented to the international community later in the summer, at the annual “Iran Freedom” gathering outside of Paris. Anyone who is appropriately interested in the perspective of the Iranian expatriate community should consider listening to the message of that gathering.
But even without hearing such a message, it should be easy to look at Tehran’s recent behavior and conclude that assertive, multilateral policies toward the regime could prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the short term, and promote systemic change over the long term. The Soleimani killing made it clear, for the first time in years, that the Islamic Republic faces serious consequences for its foreign terrorism. It should be equally clear that there are consequences for domestic crackdowns on dissent, as well.
Unfortunately, the international community has shown little interest in conveying that message so far, even though the uprising of November 2019 led to the deaths of approximately 1,500 peaceful activists. It is arguably understandable if Western governments are wary of sending that message through actions as drastic as a drone strike on someone who bears primary responsibility for Tehran’s crimes. But the lesson of “maximum pressure” is that they don’t have to. There are many economic and diplomatic means of demonstrating strength to the Iranian regime, and many have proven effective in their own right.
It will ultimately be up to the Iranian people to hold their leaders accountable for domestic killings. But in order to do so, they need to be given space to petition that government for a redress of grievances, or to overthrow it entirely. The international community can help by using its various tools of pressure in order to prevent the violent repression of future uprisings. And in the meantime, it should also continue to punish the regime, when it can safely do so, for the terrorism and violence that it exports beyond its borders.
Both of these goals can go hand-in-hand. Western democracies and the Iranian Resistance can effectively collaborate to force serious change in the behavior of the Iranian government. The US strategy of “maximum pressure” is setting the stage for this collaboration, but anyone who is interested in a full roadmap should look to the NCRI’s recommendations and the forthcoming rally for Iran Freedom.
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