Much to the chagrin of leaders in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Iran launched ballistic missiles into Syria on Sunday, targeting ISIS in retaliation for its terror attacks in Tehran two weeks ago. These strikes are the first time that Iran has launched missiles since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, which begs the question: Why has Tehran shifted its three decades-long policy of testing, but not using missiles? The answer should now be clear: It’s a reaction to Trump’s escalation in the Middle East. Three reasons explain why.
First, Trump has needlessly increased America’s military involvement in the Syrian proxy war over the past month: More boots on the ground, three “self-defense” strikes on Iranian-backed militias, and shooting down an Iranian-built drone. All of this while simultaneously killing dialogue with Iran that the Obama administration wisely cultivated. This is a recipe for war. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. At best, Washington’s policy has become dangerously incoherent, risking a direct military confrontation that both sides have hitherto sought to avoid. At worst, Trump’s team is trying to goad Tehran into war.
If there are vital American interests in Syria beyond combatting terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, proponents of military escalation have failed to explain them, let alone convince the American public. There is, however, a geopolitical conflict with Washington and Tehran on opposing sides of the chessboard. Arguments about the need to prevent a land bridge from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon are misleading because Tehran possessed long before Syria erupted in 2011. Thus, Trump is risking war not to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence, but rather to eliminate it. Knowing this, Iran’s missile strikes were in part to send a message: “We will not allow Syria to leave our orbit for yours.”
Second, Trump has given America’s traditional partners in the region a blank check on Middle East security, thereby emboldening them to pursue reckless policies vis-à-vis Iran. Less than a month after he blessed their Iran-is-the-source-of-all-evil approach during his visit to Riyadh, the Saudis called for taking the fight inside Iran, and terrorists attacked the parliament and Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran – allegedly with Saudi support. A growing number of Iranian decision-makers no longer distinguish between Saudi and American aggression precisely because the latter has blessed the efforts of the former.
Tehran is not foolish enough to lob missiles at Riyadh – and by extension, Washington – in retaliation for allegedly supporting ISIS terror attacks on Iranian soil. Instead, Iran targeted what it considers to be Saudi Arabia’s – and thanks to Trump’s blank check, America’s – proxies operating on Syrian soil. To that end, Iran’s missile strikes were also meant to send the following message: “Regardless of how you attack us, we have a variety of ways – and locations – in which we can respond.” Exposed American troops operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen have no doubt taken notice.
Third, Trump’s team has called for regime change in Iran, thereby eliminating the possibility of U.S.-Iran cooperation outside the JCPOA. Trump’s team believes that Iran only responds to pressure, but facts demonstrate the opposite. George W. Bush’s threats of regime change, as well as his abysmal handling of Iran’s nuclear program and two wars in the Muslim world, produced Iranian dominance in Baghdad and Kabul while systematically advancing the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Conversely, Obama’s diplomacy avoided war, and produced tacit cooperation in the fight against terrorists as well as an agreement that verifiably ensures Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon.
The danger of America’s regime change policy for Iran is highlighted in Syria. The UN and EU have long said there is no viable solution that excludes Iran. Yet Trump’s team is not debating whether to militarily confront Iran in Syria, but rather when. Defense Secretary Mattis is reportedly calling for restraint until ISIS is defeated, but skepticism is warranted given that he almost started a war with Iran in February. Thus, Tehran’s missile strikes in Syria were a clear signal to Washington: “Pursuing regime change won’t be cost-free. We may not be able to win a war, but we can survive one.”
All of this highlights an inconvenient truth: After six months of Trump’s presidency, Iran has used ballistic missiles operationally one time – thus far. During eight years of Obama’s presidency? Zero times. Some will blame Iran for firing the missiles and say it must take responsibility for its own actions. Fair enough. But many of those same voices refuse to acknowledge that Trump’s malpractice in the Middle East has been the primary action. What we are seeing now is Iran’s reaction. It’s not too late for Washington to re-embrace diplomacy – the only means proven to keep Tehran’s missiles at bay.