Iran strategy must be a “long game”

Visiting Iran expert Behnam Ben Taleblu

 

AIJAC guest Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was recently in Australia and New Zealand meeting with politicians, government officials and journalists to discuss the security challenge related to the behaviour of the Iranian regime. 

He was speaking in Australia at a time of heightened tensions between Teheran and Canberra, following Australia’s commitment to support the US-led naval coalition in the Strait of Hormuz to help ensure freedom of navigation as part of “Operation Sentinel”, as well as recent news that revealed three Australians have been imprisoned in Iran for some time. These are academic Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert and two travel bloggers, Jolie King and Mark Firkin. Dr. Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, has already been sentenced to ten years prison for unknown charges, reportedly relating to espionage.

When asked about Iran’s motivation for detaining the Australians, Mr. Ben Taleblu told the ABC (Sept. 13), “There is a 40-year track record, almost as old as the Islamic Republic itself, for taking foreign hostages and abusing dual nationals… so part of it is the way that the regime looks at foreign travellers, it looks at them as foreign agents most unfortunately.” Asked if he believed they were targeted because of their nationalities, Ben Taleblu said, “I think the fact that they were foreign nationals was a very significant factor in the Islamic Republic’s decision to engage in formalised hostage-taking.”

His visit to Australia coincided with the major attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 14, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo citing intelligence suggesting Iran was directly responsible, despite the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen claiming responsibility. Asked about Iran’s likely motivation for the Saudi attack, Ben Taleblu believes that “Iran is motivated by a desire to make good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, as well as continue trying to spook Washington and its regional partners into ending [their] max pressure campaign. Teheran has tried patience and is now moving towards escalation.” 

As to what the US should do in response, he said that “Washington will need to rachet up sanctions pressure, as well as establish clearly in the public domain who fired it (the IRCG, Houthis, or Iraq Shi’ite militias), what exact projectiles were used (cruise missiles, drones or ballistic missiles), and from what geography they came from, if it wants to consider further action.” 

Expanding his comments on the Saudi attack, during his visit to Australia, Ben Taleblu wrote in Fox News (Sept. 16) that the violence “dramatically illustrates why the Iran nuclear deal that was accepted by the Obama administration and rejected by President Trump failed to end the Iranian threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.” He wrote, “While the nuclear deal put temporary restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, it did absolutely nothing to stop Iran’s aggressive conventional and asymmetric military actions against its neighbours and threats against Israel. This is partly why President Trump ultimately withdrew from this deeply flawed agreement.” 

“In fact”, he added, “the nuclear deal aided Iranian military aggression and support of terrorist groups by lifting international economic sanctions against Iran and freeing up Iranian funds frozen by foreign banks. Iran has supported several terrorist groups in the region, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah based in Lebanon, the Palestinian group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, and the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.”

On his speaking tour, Ben Taleblu elaborated on why he believes the Trump Administration was right to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that the US approach of adopting crushing unilateral sanctions on Iran, known as “maximum pressure”, was achieving results.

Mr. Ben Taleblu contended that upon Trump becoming President, his Administration reviewed US Iran policy and decided not to be so “myopically focused on the nuclear issue” as previous US administrations had been, and instead deal with the Iran threat “comprehensively”, which includes addressing threats from its ballistic missile testing, as well as the arming of Iranian proxies in the Middle East to create a “land corridor” to the Mediterranean, “because one threat drives another threat”. He argued that this land corridor across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq enables Iran to more easily move weapons and fighters to turn a “quantitative advantage” against Israel into a “qualitative advantage.”

Ben Taleblu compares the Iranian threat to a “wedding cake which has multiple layers”, with the top layer being the nuclear issue and the only one the previous Obama Administration chose to focus on. He said the Trump Administration, “smashed this cake and made it into a thin but flat pancake and presented the Iran issue comprehensively to the American public, to international partners and to Europe.” 

Ben Taleblu argues that if you look at the timeline of events, it is clear that the US tried to work with its European partners to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, with the Europeans agreeing the JCPOA contained three flaws: weak inspections regimes, continued ballistic missile development and the sunset clauses which end the uranium enrichment restrictions included in the deal within a decade. However, when the Europeans were unable to improve the deal, the US decided to leave it and instead turned to unilateral sanctions. 

Mr. Ben Taleblu also believes that in terms of non-military options, sanctions are the “best return on investment” for American taxpayers and the US Government, because “the strength of the US dollar is essentially a weapon.” He noted that since the Trump Administration restored sanctions on Iran it has caused more serious damage to the Iranian economy, “than 10 to 13 years of multilateral sanctions can do”, which is “an impressive accomplishment.”

As a result, he believes Iran is now preparing to start negotiating. While Iran is clearly not at the negotiation table, Ben Taleblu believes that Iran’s acts of escalation, including breaching elements of the JCPOA, as well as threatening the world’s oil supply, for example through attacks on oil tankers, are in effect forms of “negotiation” with the US. 

Iran’s strategy, he said, has shifted “from strategic patience to graduated escalation”, and that it is currently seeking to determine how much pressure the US can tolerate before it gives in and removes sanctions on Iran. According to Mr. Ben Taleblu, Iran’s goal is to cause a rift between the US and its allies and frighten the US back into “myopic” negotiations focussed solely upon the nuclear program. 

Ben Taleblu argues that since Iran is “doing more with less money”, it will lead to an impending balance of payments crisis which will break the Iranian economy. And, he says, this is the point of the US “maximum pressure strategy”, to bring Iran to the point of economic and social collapse, “to get Iran to the point, that there is nowhere out but through” back at the negotiating table.

He also stressed that one needs to look at the situation in the region as a “video” instead of a “polaroid”. He argues that “If you take a flashpoint approach, you’ll say Iran is doing more now, than they did last year, so clearly max pressure is failing. But you can’t take a flashpoint approach to the Middle East… you have to play the long game and see it as a video… you have to see what threat rises and what threat diminishes, and what will be a threat.” He added, “those who take a snapshot approach will say max pressure isn’t working… but there is still a way to make max pressure work” and that is to see this as a “long game”.

For those who insist pressure on Iran can only backfire, Ben Taleblu cites the case study of the Iran-Iraq war whereby Iran agreed to settle on a suboptimal outcome, “when it realised there was no way out but through.” At the time, Iran’s Supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, likened accepting a cease-fire to “drinking from a poison chalice.” Ben Taleblu contends the “’art of the deal’ is how do you get Khomeini’s successor [Ali] Khamenei to reach for that same poison chalice?”