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The U.S. Is Addicted to Bad Middle East Policy

The assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is a reminder of how badly the U.S. needs a new approach to Iran. Is Biden up to the task?

Iranian mourners attend the burial ceremony of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Iranian mourners attend the burial ceremony of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Last Friday, Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, likely by agents of Israel’s Mossad and with the approval or assistance of the United States. Ostensibly a government official and university lecturer, Fakhrizadeh was also believed to have been the head of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that most Western intelligence services agreed was shut down in 2003.

To many outside observers, Fakhrizadeh’s killing seemed a deliberate act of Israeli sabotage to keep the incoming Biden administration from rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran. Iranian leaders, wounded by a humiliating attack on a senior official, may bow to conservative pressures and reject a resumption of the JCPOA on the grounds that the U.S. and Israel have made diplomacy impossible. As usual, Israel has not acknowledged any role in Fakhrizadeh’s death; a number of Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last decade, with the killings sometimes attributed to Israel’s intelligence agency.

Fakhrizadeh’s murder has outraged Iranians, sparking public demonstrations and an enormous funeral attended by major Iranian military and political leaders who vowed revenge. And the killing has further emboldened hard-liners frustrated by what they see as Western belligerence and resistance to diplomacy: What, they might ask, have these years of relative restraint gotten them? It may not matter that allies of President-elect Joe Biden have publicly asked the Iranians for patience, promising a more conciliatory posture, including maybe lifting crushing sanctions, after January 20. Fakhrizadeh’s murder has locked in another round of violence between two sides that have been fighting a useless, bloody shadow war for decades. And given Israel’s growing alliance with Sunni Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this conflict is likely to get worse. Iran will eventually seek retribution, whether soon (perhaps with a proxy militia attack against U.S. interests in Iraq, as happened after the January 3 drone assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani) or later (perhaps targeting a busload of tourists in Bulgaria).

Not just for Israel and Iran but also for the U.S., this has become part of the accepted cost of a long-running covert war that shows little sign of ending. Whether by choice or institutional inertia, America’s Middle East policy—and, by extension, a sizable chunk of its foreign policy as a whole—remains stuck in a bloody cycle of expert and unproductive murder.

The U.S. has been at war, in some form, with Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Encircling the country with military bases, labeling it part of the “Axis of Evil,” periodically threatening invasion, aiding its enemies, and even downing an Iranian passenger jet, the U.S. approach to Iran has been thoroughly militarized and one-sided. Since the news broke of Iran’s covert uranium enrichment almost two decades ago, the U.S. and Israel have, often in close partnership, worked to sabotage Iranian nuclear sites, launch cyberattacks against industrial systems, plant bombs, kill scientists, and propagandize against an Iranian nuclear threat that’s likely to never materialize. By all accounts, while Iran retains some institutional knowledge about warheads and other weapons systems—knowledge that will survive the killing of one man like Fakhrizadeh—its military ambitions were successfully hemmed in for a few years by the JCPOA. While Iran now retains more low enriched uranium than permitted under the JCPOA, there’s been almost no reporting to indicate that it has resumed nuclear weapons research.

The establishment, and particularly conservative, media has largely ignored this fact, instead presenting Iran as on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons and contributing to regional proliferation—unlike Israel, which has dozens of unacknowledged nuclear weapons that could reach Iran. The reporting from outlets like The Wall Street Journal follows a formula that’s been repeated with little revision for the last 20 years: Iran is always a year or less away from enriching enough uranium to make a bomb, at which point it may be another six months or year away from solving issues associated with assembling a warhead that can fit on one of their missiles. Like the deservedly mocked Friedman Unit, which described U.S. success in Iraq as always six months away, Western hawks see Iran as ever on the verge of deploying a weapon it seems to have little interest in developing. (It’s also doubtful that Iran would take the self-annihilating step of launching a nuclear weapon. While Iran is an anti-democratic theocracy, its government behaves less like a millennarian cult than like any mature—if rhetorically bellicose—state acting out of political self-interest.)

The incoming Biden administration promises a new approach to Iran—that is, a return to one of Obama’s few certifiable foreign policy successes, the JCPOA agreement. Reestablishing the deal will involve repealing U.S. sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy and especially its medical system in the midst of a global pandemic. Biden may be able to accomplish this through executive orders, as Iran’s hopeful foreign minister recently claimed in an interview, but he’ll have to contend with numerous countervailing forces, from Netanyahu to intractable Republicans to hawks in his own party, some of whom seem to be destined for his Cabinet and National Security Council. And after four years of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo torching what remained of U.S. diplomacy, it may be hard to convince Iran’s leaders, especially whichever conservatives may win the election planned for June 2021, that the U.S. is capable of abiding by its agreements and restraining Israeli aggression.

To insert the mandatory caveat to any piece on this topic: Iran is an illiberal regime that jails and tortures dissidents, funds militant groups across the Middle East, and is responsible for terrorist attacks on multiple continents. It is not a virtuous or defensible leadership. That being said, not just the lawful but also probably the more successful long-term strategy (not to mention the more compassionate strategy toward Iran’s millions of civilians) would be for the U.S. to abandon its belligerent approach, instead demilitarizing and normalizing its relationship with Iran, a country with whom it shares a number of interests, including the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan. That U.S. invasions of these two countries have only increased Iran’s regional influence is an ironic result that American hawks—whose credibility should be considered exhausted—must learn to accept.

Decades battling and bullying Iran have not in fact advanced peace, prosperity, or mutual understanding. Republican promises of Iranian regime change—especially when our own democratic system seems so rickety—seem like ludicrous fantasies. It’s time to acknowledge the obvious: This strategy was wrong. It was always wrong. The promised democratic Iranian revolution hasn’t come, nor has its influence decreased: Hezbollah, to take one Iranian regional proxy, is still a powerful force. With a single short-lived exception, American policy toward Iran has been a series of bloody imperial failures. The crimes of the Bush era were supposed to teach us to abandon the hallucinatory ambition to reshape the Middle East through violence alone. When it comes to Iran, that lesson remains unlearned.