Will Iran strike again to take revenge for the death of Gen. Qassim Suleimani? What will Trump’s economic sanctions look like? And what about Iraq’s attitude to all this? Heritage Foundation foreign policy expert Luke Coffey has answers. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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- Plane crash outside Tehran leaves 176 dead; cause remains unknown.
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Daniel Davis: President Trump appears to be lowering the temperature with Iran after a series of military flares provoked fears of war.
Joining me now to unpack the latest developments is Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Luke, thanks for your time.
Luke Coffey: Thanks. It’s my pleasure.
Davis: So, on Tuesday night, Iran launched over a dozen rockets at a U.S. base in Iraq. This was in response to the U.S. having killed its top general, Qassim Suleimani. What do you think Iran’s objective was?
Coffey: Well, their objective was to show that they are striking back against the United States to save face in the eyes of their public, but to do so in a way that does not provoke the United States even more to retaliate back.
And actually, one important distinction to make is that these are Iraqi bases inside Iraq, where American soldiers are located. These aren’t U.S. bases. And this is important to point out, because this was a very big violation of Iraq sovereignty as well, that Iran would shoot these missiles inside Iraq’s territory, at Iraqi bases where, yes, of course U.S. soldiers were located.
And in one case, in northern Iraq, the one missile landed in Irbil at the airport, which is both the civilian airport and also has military personnel.
So, it was highly provocative what Iran did.
Davis: So, you said that they were trying to save face with their public in Iran, while also not doing too much to provoke the U.S. again. Do you think they achieved that? Or did they do enough to appease the population in Iran who was upset over this?
Coffey: Well, for now, the answer, I would say, is yes. And because in around the way the government controls the narrative and controls the messages, it’s very easy for them to spin this into some great military success.
I mean, in reality, we know that they fired 15 missiles. One landed at the airport in Irbil, four landed somewhere in the desert, and then the remaining missiles landed on that base in western Iraq. And there were no U.S. or Iraqi or coalition casualties, and very minimal damage to facilities on these bases.
So, it was enough, I think, where the regime in Iran could go to its people and say, “Look, we struck back,” and there’s already these wild rumors flying around on social media about so many U.S. service personnel wounded and being treated secretly in Israel. And, of course, Iran has to drag in Israel somehow.
And we all know this is nonsense in the way our system of government works here. There’s no way the U.S. government could cover up something like this, but it’s enough where the Iranians probably were able to save face and had an off-ramp. And I think President [Donald] Trump recognized that. And that was clear by the tone of his remarks today.
Davis: So, it seems like the president sort of called Iran’s bluff. I mean, they’d been talking a really big game for months, and now they sort of blinked.
Coffey: That’s true. Certainly, President Trump comes out on top of all of this in many ways. And even some of his strongest critics have acknowledged this point as well.
President Trump looks stronger. Iran looks weaker. President Trump over the past several months has shown a lot of restraint against Iranian aggression. There have been numerous occasions where the U.S. would have been justified to strike back. And President Trump chose not to, always trying to leave that door open for negotiations.
And in fact, I suspect that this proposal to take out Qassim Suleimani was not the first time he was given this option. Because [former U.N. Ambassador John] Bolton tweeted over the weekend that this was a long time coming, which leads me to think that at least during his time in the White House, this was a proposal that was being floated around, and President Trump declined it.
So, I think the president felt like he really had no other choice. He had to show the Iranians that the U.S. means business, and that’s what he did. And paradoxically, the demise of Qassim Suleimani might be looked upon as the de-escalatory strike, that’s the strike that deescalated the situation.
Davis: How so?
Coffey: Well, because until this point, the Iranians thought they could keep going and going and going, and the U.S. would just kind of tinker on the edges in terms of its response, and then that response was so great, that impact, it was so great.
I don’t think we can overstate how important someone like Qassim Suleimani is to that, to the whole Iranian security apparatus. And whenever he was taken out, I think it probably gave some room for pause in Iran, and they probably thought, “Whoa, OK, can we afford another severe blow like this if we push the Americans too far when we retaliate?”
Davis: Yeah. President Trump had talked about how during the Obama administration, U.S. credibility as a deterrent force had really eroded. So, do you think this re-established American credibility?
Coffey: Certainly so in the eyes of the Iranians. I would say, the deterrence has been re-established in the eyes of our partners in the region who, to be honest, I think some were questioning American resolve over the past few months because a lot of things were happening.
International oil tankers were being hit, a massive oil-production facility in Saudi Arabia had been taken offline by an Iranian attack, a U.S. drone was shot down by Iran in international airspace and, yes, it was just a drone without a pilot. But this drone cost almost $180 million, and there were no U.S. responses.
Then, finally, I think enough was enough, and we now see that Qassim Suleimani is dead, and I think that sends a very strong message to the region, to both friend and foe alike.
Davis: President Trump in his speech on Wednesday to the nation proposed new economic sanctions on Iran. Given that Iran is already under lots of sanctions, what more can the U.S. do in this area?
Coffey: Well, there’s one kebab shop that’s left. In all seriousness, this is a very good question. And there are further areas that can be sanctioned further, banking and in other industries.
The point with sanctions is that you have to leave room for maneuver. So, we hear this term, “maximum-pressure campaign,” but there are ways that we can increase the sanctions more, and yes, we have to get more and more creative as we do this.
But it’s not as if every aspect of every industry in Iran has been totally sanctioned to the point where the U.S. can’t apply more sanctions.
Davis: We’ve often heard from our colleague here, Jim Phillips, at the Heritage Foundation, that Iran thinks in a very long cycles, thinks in terms of centuries, not in short news cycles. Do you think that there’ll be ramifications in later years for the killing of Qassim Suleimani? That they’ll have a long memory about that?
Coffey: For sure, without a doubt. And I don’t think we’ve actually seen the true impact of his demise yet. I think it’ll probably take years for us to see the impact of it.
But in terms of how the Iranians will look at it? Well, actually I think there’s a good argument to be made about last night’s strike not being the only way that Iran will retaliate because of Suleimani’s death.
Yes, I understand those arguments that even I just made about them saving face and it being an off-ramp, but also there’s a small part of me that thinks, well, maybe that was a faint, maybe they want everyone to think that everything is calm, everything is now OK, and we perhaps over a period of months become more complacent, and then they do something that’s even crazier.
I think it’s unlikely, but I would not completely rule it out, because they do have very long memories, and we should not underestimate the impact that the demise of Qassim Suleimani will have.
He was a very talented, almost special individual. He had a unique knack for unconventional warfare.
This is a guy who had only four or five years of formal education. He left his home at age 14 to work in construction, and by his early twenties, he was commanding a division during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and then he’s just spent the past 20 years setting the Middle East on fire.
And it all finally caught up with him. But nevertheless, he’s not going to be replaced very easily, because he was a unique individual, and it’s going to leave a huge gaping hole in Iran’s capabilities. And as we sort of seen in Iran with the mourning and the tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of people who’ve come onto the streets to say their goodbyes to Qassim Suleimani.
Yes, of course, this is Iran, and it wouldn’t be the first time that the government has orchestrated something like this or forced people to go out and do this. But actually I think most of this is probably genuine.
The Iranians view him as a national hero, and have viewed him as such for a number of reasons. Not because he was very effective at what he did, but also he was always seen as one of these guys who came from nothing who sort of rose to the top and didn’t get too corrupted along the way.
He was never very flashy. He wasn’t the type of Iranian elite who would have a house in France or wear designer clothes. He was a very humble person. And because of that, he was popular among many Iranians, and so the outcry that you see is probably genuine—although some of it probably is choreographed, but I would say for the most part is real.
So, this has left a huge hole. … This has made a huge impression on the Iranian people, and also the Iranian elite. And they’re, like I said, there is a small part of me that thinks that they’re not going to let this slide so easily, and we should remain vigilant, and we should remain with our guard up for the foreseeable future.
Davis: Well, also on Wednesday, President Trump shifted away from overt military action and said he wants to get a new deal, a new nuclear deal with Iran.
What are the prospects for that at this point, especially as we’ve seen deteriorating relations with Iran and that the old Iran deal is dead?
Coffey: Well, this is President Trump’s style. He prefers negotiation. He prefers making a deal. His instincts are not to go to war. He does not want to go to war with Iran. He’s not looking for a fight.
The last thing he wants during an election year is Operation Persian Freedom. This would be hugely unpopular for him, and most Americans don’t want it either. So, he’s always kept this door open for a deal.
And even in his speech he gave us today from the White House, he suggested, even went so far as to suggest that there are areas that Iran and the U.S. can cooperate on, in terms of defeating ISIS, for example, which is a pretty bold statement to make—which, of course, ISIS is the enemy of both Iran and the United States. But that doesn’t necessarily make the United States and Iran partners.
But it was a very bold statement to make, and I think it sends a signal that he is willing to keep that door open for diplomacy, and I think that’s very important.
Davis: So in terms of a nuclear deal, I mean where do you even start at this point on a new deal?
Coffey: Well, right now, we’re back at the basics of confidence-building. We’re nowhere close to the Iranians and the American sitting around the table and hammering out a new deal at this point.
I think that it’s going to take a … we’ll need a period of months of calmness and hopefully that’s what we’re entering right now.
If Iran is smart, President Trump has shown today that he doesn’t want to escalate it anymore. If [the] Iranians are smart, they won’t escalate it any more, and we can see where we go in the next few months.
Davis: I’m just curious, your take, in Iran, do you think a nuclear deal now with the U.S. would be seen as submitting to the U.S.?
Coffey: Well, I don’t know if the regime really has to worry about that. They don’t have to worry about public opinion in the same way that democracies do, and they can control the narrative a lot better.
That’s why they can lob 15 missiles into Iraq, 11 of which only hit the target, four completely miss altogether, and they claim as being some great military success. Only in Iran can you do that, or perhaps North Korea, or a few other very closed societies.
The Iran deal itself wasn’t all—the original [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] deal agreed under [President Barack] Obama—wasn’t all that popular in some parts of Iran anyway.
Many of the average Iranians who thought the lifting of sanctions was going to bring new economic opportunities, never saw the economic windfall. It mainly helped many of the elites at the very top. And then there was an internal debate inside the Iranian leadership about the merits of this deal.
I mean, this deal was never passed by their Majles, which is their version of the parliament. So, it wasn’t exactly widely supported in Iran at the time either. I mean, it was a very controversial deal, whether it was in Washington or Tehran. Really, the only place it enjoyed huge levels of popularity was Europe.
Davis: Do you think that the Iran deal contributed to the current situation we’re in with Iran?
Coffey: Well, certainly it emboldened them with lots of cash and money and diplomatic legitimacy, emboldened their willingness to well assert themselves more on the global stage, because they were treated as, well, they’re sort of taken out of the “pariah” camp and brought more into the mainstream.
President Trump’s claim today that the money they were given because of the Iran deal funded the missiles that were used to attack U.S. forces. It was a very tenuous, it’s difficult to prove that.
I mean … there is no doubt in my mind the money that they got from the Iran deal was used to fuel their proxy forces, and their export of terrorism across the Middle East. But I mean, in terms of assigning a certain amount of money to certain missiles, I think, is probably very difficult if not impossible to do.
But I think it was, I don’t think President Trump meant that literally. I think it was more of an illustrative point that … when you unfreeze $150 billion in cash, and you give it to the Iranians, almost overnight, when you remove major international sanctions overnight, they’re going to enjoy certain benefits.
And the reality is, they weren’t using this money to build new schools and roads and hospitals in Iran. Their behavior across the Middle East after signing the Iran deal with President Obama did not change.
Yes, they had more restrictions on their nuclear production. They weren’t perfect restrictions, that’s for sure. They were restricted, but not completely restricted. But in terms of their other malign acts, supporting proxy groups and fighting in Yemen and Syria and in Iraq and Lebanon, they continued to do so, and in fact increase this sort of activity.
So, it has zero impact on their behavior in the region.
Davis: I want to ask you about Iraq, too. After the killing of Suleimani, the Iraqi parliament voted for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. How does all of this bode for the U.S.-Iraqi relationship?
Coffey: We should remember that this vote that was taken a few days ago in the Iraqi parliament was a nonbinding vote—so, symbolic. And about half of the parliamentarians didn’t even show up to vote. Only the parliamentarians linked to Shia parties, which are closely aligned with certain groups in Iran, showed up to vote.
The Sunni- and Kurdish-dominated parties, they boycotted the vote. So, Iraq is divided on this issue. We should not pretend that every Iraqi wants the U.S. to leave. And we shouldn’t also pretend that every Iraqi wants the U.S. to stay. I think it’s a little more complicated than that.
But, for sure, the U.S. is not going to be kicked out anytime soon from Iraq. And I think even those Iraqi statesman, the Iraqi parliamentarians, lawmakers, officials, regardless if they’re Sunni, Shia, or Kurdish, they know that despite some of their rhetoric about wanting the U.S. forces to leave, they know that they do not want [a repeat of] 2011, when U.S. forces were removed by President Obama and a few months later, ISIS is on the gates of Baghdad. No one wants to repeat of that.
So, a lot of the stuff, I would say, is for domestic consumption. Politicians in Baghdad have constituents in the same way politicians in Washington or London or Paris do as well. Sometimes, things are said and done to cater to that constituency. And that’s probably what we’re seeing a lot of today in Iraq.
Davis: In his speech, President Trump also called on NATO to play a greater role in the Middle East. What’s been keeping NATO from taking on a greater role, and what would that look like?
Coffey: Well, I about fell out of my chair when I heard that. As someone who focuses, most of my career has been focused on NATO and transatlantic security, I couldn’t believe—I didn’t know where he was going with it, if I’m honest with you. And there are no further details.
NATO’s area of responsibility, if you look at the original 1949 treaty, is the North Atlantic region, north of the Tropic of Cancer. Right? So it’s mainly the European region.
Yes, NATO forces are in Afghanistan after 9/11, but I think that was a result of, at that time, NATO not sure what its mission was. It didn’t really have this, the same mission that it had during the Cold War.
But now with Russia back on the march in Europe, fighting in Ukraine, occupying parts of Ukraine, threatening the Baltic states, threatening NATO members—I think NATO as an institution should remain focused in Europe.
It doesn’t need to be in the Middle East. But that being said, remember NATO is a collection of countries. So, while NATO as an institution probably shouldn’t take a bigger role in the Middle East, the countries that form NATO should probably play a bigger role in the Middle East.
Davis: I mean, do you think that was maybe just Trump signaling he wants the U.S. to distance itself, and other European countries to take more of a footprint?
Coffey: Exactly. If I was translating that from Trump language, I would say that it was, Americans have done enough in the Middle East.
Davis: No more stupid wars.
Coffey: It’s time for others to do more, and Europe should do more. He doesn’t, he didn’t, I don’t think he really meant NATO. I think he actually means Europe, but who knows?
Davis: Well, in a separate news story, a Ukrainian airliner crashed just outside of Tehran, minutes after it took off and only hours after Iran had launched its rocket attacks on Iraq.
The crash killed all 176 people onboard. What do you make of this? Could this—I mean, some are speculating that this, the timing of it and the location, signals this could have been an accidental strike by Iranian rockets.
Coffey: It’s very tragic and sad, and I feel bad for all the passengers and their families and the crew that were on that plane.
The question or the reality is, we don’t know right now what happened. But because of the circumstances, you cannot rule out that the plane wasn’t accidentally shot down, but we don’t know. And there are all these stories out there now, the Iranians are not going to share the black box … but there are pictures that are surfacing on social media.
So, no doubt … these forensic experts that are online will be piecing together the clues, and we’ll have a bit more of a picture in the coming days, I suspect. But I think it was highly irresponsible of the Iranians to launch an attack like this, and at the same time allow planes to land and depart from their major civilian international airports.
Presumably, they knew that this rocket attack was 15 rockets. Who knows how much time it took to fire off these 15 rockets? But I’m going to guess, probably not very much. So why couldn’t they just temporarily close the airspace?
They gave the Iraqis apparently a warning that this attack was coming. The U.S. actually last night issued, the FAA issued a warning, to U.S. aircraft in the [Persian Gulf] that because of heightened military activity, they were to avoid certain regions of the Middle East.
So … I don’t know why the Iranians didn’t think to do the same thing. Was this plane accidentally shot down? Who knows? Was it a terrorist attack? Who knows? Or was it an accident? Who knows? And we may never know the truth because of where this, this accident, this tragedy happened.
But it does just further complicate the situation, because it’s Iran, because it happened the same night that these attacks were taking place. And then you throw in the fact that it’s Ukraine, and with their war going on and the bad luck that country’s had, it’s just sad all around.
Davis: So, one of the recent controversies this week has been whether the U.S. would attack Iranian cultural sites. President Trump recently hinted at that, but then said he wouldn’t do it.
Our colleague here at Heritage, Jim Carafano, has pointed out that Iran maybe hides its facilities under cultural sites or mixes that category. Can you explain what that’s about?
Coffey: It has been known that Iran has had some of its nuclear facilities near historical sites, religious sites, and that’s always created a problem. They’ve sort of used these locations as protection, so to speak.
But the U.S. military is very used to operating in environments with cultural sites and religious sites. And for example, I remember when I was serving in Afghanistan, we cannot return fire—like artillery fire, for example, when rockets were launched at us—if the location that were where we were firing was within a certain proximity of even a library or a school.
So, the U.S. is very careful about this and cannot imagine a situation where the Department of Defense would willingly, for no apparent reason other than to strike it, target a cultural site, because these cultural sites in Iran, they’re not the Islamic Republic’s cultural sites.
In many ways, these belong to the world. These date back thousands of years. Iran, the Persian people are one of the great civilizations of the world. And we should never allow the Islamic Republic to hijack that and to think that they have some sort of unique control or ownership of that.
So, I don’t know what President Trump was saying at the time or what he meant, but he did quickly walk this back. So, I don’t think he really had in mind that he was going to attack UNESCO sites in Iran, but certainly Iran has a history of putting some of their research facilities and some of their production facilities near these important sites.
Davis: Interesting. Well, we’ll keep following all of this at The Daily Signal. Luke Coffey, really appreciate your time today.
Coffey: Thank you.