US policy on Iran undermines the message of Soleimani's liquidation

Particularly welcome was the strong position against Iran's nuclear ambitions and regional hegemony.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, March 4, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during the cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, March 4, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel and many of the Arab states were hopeful about Trump's presidency, viewing it as a breath of fresh air in light of the eight years of Obama's policies, which left the Middle East in chaos.
Particularly welcome was the strong position against Iran's nuclear ambitions and regional hegemony. Indeed, over the past three years, the administration took a number of important steps that distinguished it from the preceding presidency, in withdrawing from the JCPOA, the hallmark of Obama's foreign policy, designating the IRGC as terrorist organization, sanctioning oil, ramping up other economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and working with the Gulf Cooperation Council to undermine illicit financing of Iran's ill conceived criminal schemes and proxies.
The administration also succeeded in getting several Latin American countries to designate Iran's Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and worked effectively to prevent its operatives from launching terrorist attacks close to US borders. The administration's coup de grace, the liquidation of the Al Quds Brigades chief mastermind Qasem Soleimani, generally viewed as one of the architects of Iran's successful implementation of its hegemonic advance across the Middle East and beyond, and the targeting of a number of heads of Iraqi militias, was anticipated by many to be a turning point in the US position on Iran.
By killing Soleimani, the foreign policy experts contended, the United States turned a page on holding Iran accountable for its wanton terrorism and political assassinations abroad, sending a signal that Iran can no longer attack US targets with impunity. The skeptics, however, held back the unbridled enthusiasm to see whether the administration would remain committed and consistent to this course of action, or whether Soleimani was merely a strong slap on the hand called for after it had gone a step too far in the middle of an election year.
Indeed, there was reason for doubt. From the moment Trump's administration office, as Lee Smith revealed in his column for the online Tablet magazine, it was plagued by contradictory goals and aspirations. Trump had to appeal to two different bases - the Iran  hawks, including a number of leading members of Congress, and later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the isolationist base tired of "endless wars."
That second group, in part thanks to the choir of Iranian lobbyists and the former Obama foreign policy team, perceived any strong response to Iran's aggression and nuclear deal-cheating as having the potential to increase the chaos in the Gulf and to draw the United States into another protracted and costly conflagration far away from immediate domestic needs.
For that reason, the US foreign policy on Iran appeared to be all over the place, with various factions frequently holding sway over official pronouncements and causing concern and confusion among US allies. That included failure to sanction and enforce sanctions against various high-level Iranian officials and entities, an ineffective whack-a-mole routine in confronting Hezbollah, failure to respond effectively to Houthi activity in Yemen, and to the targeting of US drones, oil tankers and Saudi ARAMCO and civilian sites, and a seeming inability or unwillingness to hold Iran accountable for the political hostage-taking of US citizens, permanent residents, and dual nationals.
 
CONGRESSIONAL EFFORTS to introduce punitive measures and sanctions for the involvement of various regime apparatchiks in these forced disappearances and convictions on trumped up charges have not yet made it to the presidential desk, with Sen. Ted Cruz's initiative to sanction the parties involved in these arrests being the latest. This failure to impose some measurement of accountability on the regime's political extortion, while not unique to confronting Iran, contradicts the administration's commitment to do away with Obama-era appeasement of the Islamic Republic and inaction or even financial and political rewards granted to Tehran in exchange for the release of prisoners.
This inability to respond to blatantly illegal conduct with any modicum of political will has become particularly visible in light of the recent announcement that Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who was on a CIA mission to Iran when he was arrested and disappeared in 2011, was most likely dead. No statement from the White House indicated its willingness to inflict any financial or other pain on the regime which had been opaque about Levinson's fate for the last nine years.
Furthermore, there appears to be a curious willingness to consider a possible quid pro quo in lifting sanctions on humanitarian trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran, but likely tied as much to the Iran's willingness to release some dual nationals in its custody, including at least one American, on humanitarian grounds.
Once again, Iran gets to claim a PR victory by a show of "goodwill," and gets an opportunity to save face, despite the illegality and immorality of these arrests in the first place.
At the same time, the administration issued new waivers for Russian, Chinese and European countries working on civilian nuclear energy in Iran, despite pressure and opposition from the Iran hawks, including from Pompeo and  Cruz. All this is taking place in the midst of a pandemic, for which the administration rightly is holding the Chinese government responsible, and in the midst of which Iran rejected the offer of direct US humanitarian aid while pushing for the lifting of sanctions.
Any lifting of sanctions, as suggested by the administration, is likely to result in smuggling and abuse by the Iranian authorities, who, as Pompeo admitted, recently embezzled more than $1 billion in public funding designated for the fight against the coronavirus.
Several other developments should be noted. A number of European countries, including France and Germany, which while claiming hardship over the push to contain the rise of coronavirus across the European Union, used this time for  implementing a new trade mechanism for circumventing US sanctions to provide medical supplies to Iran (which were reported denied to Italy at a critical early stage in the outbreak), flagrantly challenging the US policy and recently articulated positions.
 
MORE RECENTLY, there were reports of Hezbollah's expansion of its networks to Africa. Additionally, Denmark and the Netherlands, where Soleimani's assassins had previously targeted or successfully assassinated Arab and Kurdish dissidents from Iran, recently arrested a number of Ahwazi activists on political charges of spying for Saudi Arabia and involvement in a terrorist attack against an IRGC parade in Iran immediately following a conclusion of a business deal between Copenhagen and Tehran.
Finally, after a short lull, Iran-backed Iraqi militias are once again regrouping and staging attacks on US targets, with increasing push-back from the US forces.
However, at the same time, the US seems committed to limiting its presence in Iraq to the fight against ISIS, as evidenced by the recent planned withdrawal from three bases, allegedly due to the success of the operations by Iraqi Security Forces. Despite Iraq's obvious fealty to Tehran, it somehow remains committed to preserving at least an appearance of an alliance.
No Iraqi officials have been sanctioned for human rights abuses or for their role in enabling the attacks on US targets, or for assisting Iran's oil smuggling and other operations in the region. Leaving Iraq in Iran's hands appears to be part of US strategy in ending "endless wars," despite its recent shift of forces from Syria to the country.
None of that is very important if these forces remain largely a matter of optics, or limited to retaliatory strikes against militias, which ultimately does not change the strategy or the larger regional reality of Iran's growing presence.
Looking at the totality of circumstances, while Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Pompeo battle it out in formulating the policy directives for the president to try to balance the countervailing interests, the message being sent to Iran is that it has the freedom to maneuver and to continue manipulating these domestic political divisions in the United States to its advantage.
Other countries and entities such as Russia, China and the European Union, likewise have the freedom to pursue self-enrichment policies that are at odds with US' long-term plans. Far from being on the brink of collapse, Iran is eating its cake in terms of growing its proxies around the world, and utilizing propaganda campaigns and lawfare to silence its opposition in Western countries, while avoiding any long-term and consistent accountability for repeated attacks on US targets and certainly against those of US allies in the region.
As some have feared, the effect of Soleimani's elimination has been tempered, if not outright undone, by the passage of time, the reality of the reluctance of taking decisive action in an election year while battling an infectious outbreak, and the failure to develop a consistent policy to counter all of Iran's efforts to advance its hegemonic agenda, across the board, rather than an occasional practically ad hoc response to perceived overreach. While the US is battling its internal demons, Iran is winning the ground game and the influence game, and slowly but surely soldiers on.

The writer is a New York-based human rights lawyer and a national security analyst who frequently writes about geopolitics and the MENA region.