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Assassinations and Sanctions Aren’t Working: Why America and Israel Need a New Iran Strategy

There's a better way for Biden and Israel to contain Iran's regional meddling and its nuclear aspirations – with the added benefit of clipping the wings of an increasingly authoritarian, aggressive Turkey

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The coffin of Iran's assassinated top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his funeral procession in the northeastern city of Mashhad. November 29, 2020
The coffin of Iran's assassinated top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during his funeral procession in the northeastern city of Mashhad. November 29, 2020Credit: - - AFP

The U.S. and Israel have two problems with Iran: its regional meddling and its nuclear aspirations. Their current approach, which devolves to bumping off senior officials, imposing extraterritorial sanctions, and abandoning negotiated agreements isn't working, and seems unlikely to work in the future.

To deal with Iran’s regional activism, the U.S. assassinated Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil; to deal with the nuclear challenge, Israel apparently killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an important Iranian nuclear scientist.

While there's no question that killing competent, even inspirational managers like Soleimani or Fakhrizadeh can cause administrative setbacks, assassination doesn't solve the underlying problem. It does, however, incur risks both in the near term and down the road. 

Incinerating Soleimani didn’t reduce Iranian influence in Iraq at all, but triggered Shi’a militia rockets landing in the Baghdad Green Zone. 

In the case of Fakhrizadeh, many Democrats see an Israeli attempt, in collusion with the outgoing Trump administration, to preempt or impede a return to negotiations with Iran. This perception will only make it harder to sustain the U.S.-Israel relationship as a bipartisan priority over the long haul.

Iran's Basij paramilitary force students burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden to protest he killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Nov 28, 2020Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

More generally, killings of this kind are legally questionable, and lower the barrier for other states that might want to get in on the game. 

At this stage, "maximum pressure" might have damaged Iran’s economy, but it has also resulted in a renewed stockpile of fissile material and reduced lead time to a bomb. 

There's a better way to deal with these underlying problems. 

On the nuclear side, the U.S. could go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), assuming the Biden team can successfully engage an Iranian leadership that has little reason to trust Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already fired a warning shot against such an effort; in a divided Washington, his voice will have an impact. And the new team, like any administration, will face a complicated political landscape. The situation might yield paralysis rather than resolution.

On the regional security side, however, an alternative strategy might be easier to apply. And that would be to direct Arab financial and commercial prowess to outbid Iran wherever it tries to get a foothold – or increase its influence – within the region. This approach might also clip the wings of an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive Turkey

From both an American and Israeli perspective, mobilization of Arab resources to compete with Iran is simply more practical than the use of U.S. power or Israeli covert operations to subjugate or weaken it. 

The Abraham Accords, followed by Netanyahu’s meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gives Israel leverage to persuade its Arab partners to give nonmilitary competition with Iran a chance. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a welcoming ceremony for the passengers of a flight operated by budget airline flydubai at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. November 26, 2020Credit: EMIL SALMAN - AFP

These states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have the resources and the strategic instinct to outbid Iran across the board. Add Egypt to the mix, with its strong construction sector, and the monopoly that Iran enjoys – or is trying to cultivate – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will shrink. 

The Trump administration, which viewed Iraq as a stalking horse for Iran, Syria as Tehran’s vassal, and the Lebanese state as irrelevant, could never do this. A new U.S. administration focused less on coercively rolling back the Iranian threat and more on crowding it out of the Arab world could achieve more at less risk. 

A Popular Mobilization Forces supporter holds a picture of Iran's Quds Force head Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed in a U.S. airstrike. Baghdad, Oct 17, 2020Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

Likewise, instead of trying to starve Syria to turn it into a quagmire for Iran and Russia, the Biden administration could restructure sanctions so that Arab states eager to get on with reconstruction – and having the means to do so – can get to work. Instead of pushing Syria into Iran’s embrace, this approach would marginalize Tehran by demonstrating its relative incapacity and creating an alternative to its support. 

This same tack could be applied to Lebanon as well, where the Trump administration had decided the best way to limit Iran’s influence was to torment the Lebanese people, as though they would have the capacity to disarm Hizbollah to avert whatever new punishment Washington might devise.

Iran is not the only adversary that requires a rethink. Turkey has emerged as a disruptor in a region that is trying to settle down. 

The Trump administration catered to Erdogan’s aggressive maneuvering, giving a green light to Turkish occupation of a large chunk of Syrian territory and the depredations of Turkish-supported militias against Kurds that had fought with the U.S. against ISIS. Erdogan, it should be remembered, afforded these jihadists safe haven. 

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in Washington, U.S., Nov. 13, 2019.Credit: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Trump’s approach emboldened Ankara to become an aggressive player in the Eastern Mediterranean (while threatening other NATO allies, especially Greece) and to assert itself in the Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis. Biden will have to mobilize an Arab coalition to clip Turkey’s wings while exploring ways to encourage Turkish restraint, via pressure from its NATO allies.

These policy departures won’t solve every regional problem. The Palestinians will remain isolated, the political opposition in nearly every regional state will still be at risk, and economic and environmental security for many will remain elusive. 

A way forward for Palestinians will still need to be found, Egypt will have to be pushed to restore civil liberties, Saudi Arabia must stop its attacks on noncombatants in Yemen, a political transition in Syria remains to be negotiated. For the U.S. at least, these objectives – among others – will remain important. 

But a new strategy of promoting Arab cooperation and Israel’s further integration into its surroundings can go a long way toward reducing risk of conflict and improving quality of life – even survival – for the peoples hardest hit by civil war and state breakdown. 

Instead of continuing with "maximum pressure," the U.S. and Israel should opt for "smart pressure," exerted through non-violent competition wielded by regional Arab states. This won’t usher in the Age of Aquarius and render hard power irrelevant. 

But rather than single-handedly trying to roll back Iran and Islamic radicalism, which have filled the void left by state collapse in the region, it is imperative that the U.S. and Israel help Arab states take a constructive role in using soft power to build a more durable balance of power and shape the post-Arab Spring Middle East for the better.

Joshua Landis is the Director of the Center of Middle East Studies & Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Twitter: @joshua_landis

Aiman Mansour served in the Israeli National Security Council for 13 years; his last post was as head of the Middle East and Africa Division

Steven Simon served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is Professor of International Relations at Colby College

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