How Does Trump’s Battle Won Fit Within the 40-Year Struggle With Iran?

You might be tired of analysis of the Suleimani strike and Iran’s response, but it’s still arguably the most important story in the world right now. The struggle with Iran will continue, but the short-term consequences of the strike are becoming more clear. Also, I want to share a word about immigration and refugees—with a comment about the governor of my state, Tennessee’s Bill Lee. Today’s French Press:

  1. Iran’s missile strike—and the difference between a gamble lost and won.

  1. America’s immigration problem is not a refugee problem.

The Suleimani strike is looking like a battle won in the long struggle with Iran.

One of the dangers of trying to write up an analysis of a rapidly unfolding news event is that all your work can become instantly outdated within minutes of hitting send. And so it seemed on Tuesday night. Just a few hours after sending a newsletter that argued “don’t panic” about a series of alarming news reports from Iraq and Iran, my news alerts lit up with some truly alarming news. It appeared that Iran was launching a wave of missile strikes against U.S. troops. For example, here was Fox’s Jennifer Griffin at 5:16 p.m.:

If Griffin’s senior source had accurate information, her report would have verged on a worst-case scenario. An attack “all over the country” would mean that Iran wasn’t just courting open war, it was launching open war. Damage would have been considerable and casualties almost certain. 

But then, as the night wore on, the fog of war began to lift. A very different picture emerged. Yes, Iran launched missiles directly at U.S. forces from Iranian territory (an escalation), but it was a small, focused strike, and there were no American or Iraqi casualties. And by 8:32 p.m., Iran’s foreign minister tweeted this:

The situation demanded American restraint, and on Wednesday  Donald Trump delivered. He promised sanctions, not strikes. The immediate crisis eased, and the short-term exchange tilted heavily in America’s favor. Iran lost one of its most vital commanders, Iranian-backed militias lost important leaders, and the immediate responses looked more like saving face than courting war. Iran launched a small, ineffective missile barrage. Iraqi Shiites passed a nonbinding resolution demanding Americans leave Iraq. Neither move fundamentally altered the facts on the ground. In the meantime, Iran was left replacing a generational, diabolical military talent.

Over the weekend, I wrote a piece for Time magazine arguing that Trump’s strike was not only bold and legally and morally justifiable, it also might work to temporarily re-establish a measure of deterrence. There is historical precedent for that hope. In 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war raged, Iran was systematically attacking neutral civilian shipping in the Gulf. Clashes between the U.S. and Iran escalated until the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis, a naval strike designed to sink an Iranian frigate and/or destroy Iranian surveillance posts on two oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. 

The resulting battle—one of the largest surface actions since World War II—sank or damaged a significant fraction of the Iranian fleet, and while skirmishes continued in the Gulf after the battle—Iranian attacks on neutral shipping did decrease. But Iran’s larger, long-term conflict with the United States continued, unabated. And in 1996, well before the onset of the Iraq war or the rise of al-Qaeda into a terrifying terrorist force, Iran’s proxies blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudia Arabia, killing 19 American servicemembers.

Americans need to face facts. While here at home we struggle for ways to escape the so-called “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranian regime has  demonstrated, for more than 40 years, its commitment to a forever war with us. And Iran’s forever war is marked not just by steady consistent efforts to undermine American interests in the Middle East at every turn, but also by sporadic and deadly acts of both overt and proxy violence that have killed hundreds of Americans..

In recent days we’ve heard much about the more than 600 U.S. servicemembers slain by Iranian proxies (and even Iranian Quds Force) under Suleimani’s command, but from the Iran hostage crisis, to the Beirut barracks bombing (Americans have largely forgotten one of the most horrific terror attacks in our nation’s history), to the second Iran hostage crisis, (the spur for the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term), to the sporadic combat operations against Iranian proxies and Iranian forces, to the Iranian interventions in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the story is of long-term, deadly opposition to the United States.

Simply put, so long as the Islamic Republic remains, it will be hostile to the United States. This means three things:

First, the Suleimani affair is not over, and it may not be over for years. Don’t think that the Iranian rocket strikes represented the country’s final response to the Suleimani strike. Already Iranians are vowing “harsher revenge” for Suleimani’s death. Iran’s memory is long, it plays the long game, and it may not be initiating planning for terror strikes in response that will come well after American politicians see the linkage.

Americans have this terrible habit of viewing each terror attack or provocation (provided they are sufficiently spaced apart) as a “new” thing requiring a “new” response. For Iranians it’s often the same thing—just another phase of their long war. 

Second, however, the fact that the war continues does not mean the Suleimani strike was unwise. It’s worth winning battles even if the battle does not win the war. Iran has suffered a real loss. Even if it can replace Suleimani with a new commander, there’s a reason why striking the enemy’s command and control is typically more effective than simply killing foot soldiers. At the very least it can disrupt planning and operations. At best, it can remove talented commanders from the fight permanently, and if they’re replaced with less-capable leadership, the benefits can accrue for months or years. 

There was a reason beyond revenge for Pearl Harbor, for example, why American forces in World War II considered it such a coup to kill Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He was an extremely capable commander, and killing capable commanders weakens your enemies. 

Third, it’s worth continuing maximum pressure on Iran even if it does not result in a new nuclear deal. I’ve heard more optimistic voices argue that Iran might now be weakened (or intimidated) enough to come to the table and reach a new agreement. I’m extremely skeptical. The Iranians now know that Americans will feel free to tear up a deal and start over, and I see no indications that they’re any less committed to their 40-year war. From their position, this is a religious conflict and a regional power struggle that is also sustained by generations of grievances against American actions in Iran. If anything, they likely have renewed appreciation of the vital importance of obtaining nuclear weapons as a guarantee of regime survival and as the ultimate deterrent against American attack. 

But if there’s no realistic prospect of an actual, enforceable deal that ends Iran’s nuclear program once and for all and ends its support international terror, why maintain maximum pressure? Doesn’t that, by itself, inflame tensions? But if you have the realistic view of Iran—as an implacable, permanent enemy so long as the regime lasts—then the question answers itself. You maintain pressure because you want your enemy weaker, not stronger. 

One of the fundamental flaws of the Iran deal is that it strengthened Iran without altering its nature or its intentions. Members of the Obama team hoped in good faith that easing Iran back into the world economy could, over time, moderate the regime. Yet Iran was doubling down in its efforts at regional hegemony and maintaining its commitment to genocidal war in Syria. Iran worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan, even to the point of overtly assisting Taliban attacks. It was still a terrorist state.

Just as there is absolutely zero American will to launch a regime-change war against North Korea, there is zero American will to launch a new, extraordinarily violent and deadly, direct military confrontation with Iran. And for good reason. When containment is an option, the horrible costs of war are simply too great to risk. So containment must continue. We must treat Iran for what it is—an implacable foe. We must understand that no single battle is likely to win this conflict, but battles won are better than battles lost, and so far the strike against Suleimani now looks like a battle won. 

Refugees are in a different category from other immigrants.

Earlier this week, my governor made a bit of news after a sharp exchange with constituents over his decision to accept refugees in Tennessee. Here’s the Associated Press:

Tuesday’s discussion at a GOP group’s Nashville luncheon drew some grumbling about his refugee decision. Lee responded with his loudest defense of his choice to date.

“My wife has worked with a group called Servant Group International that works with Kurdish refugees that live in Nashville. The women group that she works with are mostly women whose husbands were killed because they served as interpreters for American soldiers alongside the American military when we fought in Iraq. And their husbands died as a result of working with Americans. I’m not turning my back on those people,” Lee said.

Good for him. We’ve reached a distressing point where self-described white Evangelicals are the American political demographic least likely to believe that the United States has “a responsibility to accept refugees”—and based on my own conversations with Evangelical friends and neighbors, I think I know why.

First, in the absence of knowledge about the underlying issue, I believe that many of these questions are interpreted through a purely partisan lens. Voters hear key words like “refugee” and then default to perceived partisan position. Analysts always seem to overestimate public knowledge and underestimate pure partisanship in public responses. 

Second, in their ignorance, many Republicans are lumping together “refugees” with either asylum applicants or outright illegal immigrants. When they hear “refugee” they think of, say, the caravans from Central America or the host of illegal immigrants who arrive in the United States and apply for asylum without proper legal foundation. This is a category error.

As a general matter, a refugee refers to a person coming from outside the United States who has already legally qualified for refugee status under American and international law. They are legal entrants from the moment they set foot on American soil, admitted often from overseas refugee facilities where they are subject to a vetting process. American administrations have set varying refugee caps year-by-year, but these numbers never represent a truly significant portion of America’s immigrant population.

Asylum seekers, by contrast, are generally individuals who seek protected status after they enter the United States and their status is not yet adjudicated. They enter without permission and then use an asylum claim as a defense to deportation. Americans are rightly concerned about an overwhelmed asylum system and rightly concerned about many thousands of illegitimate asylum claims. 

Illegal immigrants, by contrast, are individuals who never had a valid legal claim to enter the United States. 

To put this as simply as possible—refugees aren’t illegal immigrants, they’re legal immigrants who have already proved the desperation of their circumstances. And while America cannot obviously throw its doors open to every refugee (but the Trump administration is far too restrictive), the lack of hospitality shown to even the few we now permit in our country is deeply distressing. 

We can and should debate the appropriate level of legal immigration—including refugee immigration—into the United States. And if there is valid reason to think that any given refugee is a security threat, then deploy law enforcement. But there are too many rank-and-file members of the GOP who want to slam the door on refugees as a class, even when they’re entitled by law and presidential directive to enter the United States. That’s a policy—and an impulse—that smacks much more of cruelty than prudence. 

One last thing … 

I’m revamping a large closet in my house to serve as a podcast/Skype studio, and I need a backdrop in the event of a video interview. In lieu of the Nashville skyline or a scene of lovely downtown Franklin, Tennessee, I thought this poster of Ja Morant destroying Aron Baynes was appropriately professional. Thoughts? Is my decision excellent, very excellent, or perfect?

Photograph of Donald Trump by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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