Is Iran Next?
On April 4, 2017, it was reported that the Syrian government used Sarin gas in the city of Idlib and killed approximately 70 civilians. Most people are now quite familiar with the horrendous pictures of the victims. The international community was shocked. President Trump responded, "It crossed many lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies . . . with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines -- beyond a red line."
However, this was not the first time the government of Syria used its chemical munitions against non-combatants.
The Syrian civil war that started in 2011 has resulted in over 500,000 deaths and over a million refugees. Neighborhoods have been bombed and strafed without regard to civilians living in the area; beheadings, torture, and sieges of populated cities have occurred. These are all horrible acts but are, unfortunately, not unusual in war. (Anyone with an average understanding of the nature of warfare will understand this.) However, the world has lived with these atrocities and has done nothing, except issue statements and proclamations.
In 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus . . . ”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was put on notice that using chemical weapons would be very detrimental to the survival of the Syrian government. However, in August 2013 President Assad used chemical weapons for the first time in Ghouta, resulting in over 1,000 casualties. The world waited for President Obama to respond and waited and waited. However, President Obama’s “Red Line” was never enforced, severely damaging U.S. credibility in the world for the next five years.
Besides not wanting the U.S. to lead from the front and his outspoken proclivity towards soft power, why did the Obama administration not follow through with his “Red Line” threat?
Just last year it was reported that Obama did not enforce the “Red Line” ultimatum because of his desire to execute a deal with the Iranians. Iran supposedly threatened that if the U.S. attacked its ally, it would not agree to a deal regarding its nuclear program. President Obama and his administration were so desperate to deal with the Iranians that they allowed the Syrians to remain unpunished even though the President of the United States made a threat in public about a certain action and did not follow through with it.
To save face, the Obama administration in late 2013 proposed an agreement with the Russians mandating the Syrians to declare and destroy any remaining stockpiles of chemical munitions by mid-2014. The Russians were responsible for the supervision of the disposal and destruction of all munitions.
While this occurred, the civil war in Syria continued unabated. Turkey, Russia, Iran, ISIS and many other actors became actively involved in the fighting. The Russians provided military support in the form of airstrikes, material, and intelligence to assist the Syrian government. The Iranians provided material and thousands of men.
Then Syrian government aircraft dropped chemical weapons on April 4, 2017. Another reoccurring lesson for the West is that making deals with corrupt, dictatorial powers without the threat of force behind it accomplishes nothing but bidding time for its enemies. Moreover, allowing the Russians, serial cheaters at disarmament agreements, supervise the execution of any agreement is not a wise choice.
While the U.S. has rightly stayed out of the fray except for attacking targets of opportunities against ISIS operating in Syria, this latest use of chemical weapons was meant as a direct challenge to the U.S.
President Trump stepped up to the challenge and has followed through on President Obama’s “Red Line” threat; decisively, quickly, secretly. . . all the hallmarks of a great military operation. There was no weaseling around. The time it took from the first reports of the chemical attacks to the U.S. missiles landing at Shayrat Airfield was just over 60 hours.
This week’s response to Syria’s latest chemical attack showed the world that the U.S. would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by any government. It also is a wake-up call to all of America’s enemies that President Trump will use hard power to achieve the national security interests of the U.S. This attack does not necessarily mean that the U.S. will pursue any further intervention in Syria and it should not, even with Senator John McCain calling for further actions. It does mean that the U.S., under Trump and his team, will not allow any country to go unpunished when the national security interests or credibility of the U.S. are at stake. History has demonstrated over and over that credibility is national security. There will be no rush to the United Nations, warnings or other shuttle diplomacy, just action.
Note what President Trump said, “It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This articulation of the U.S.’s national security interest in the case of chemical weapons is clear. Couple that with the attack on Syria, it shows President Trump is serious about backing up words with action.
While China, Russia, and North Korea have been put on notice, the country that should worry the most in the short term is Iran.
What does this mean for Iran? President Trump said many times that the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration negotiated was flawed. So there is no surprise that he intends to do away with the agreement.
Iran has already broken a provision of the agreement that President Obama and Secretary Kerry brokered. Just days after President Trump was inaugurated, Iran launched a ballistic missile. Resolution 2231 “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology." Additionally, Iran has been supplying the rebels in Yemen. The Yemeni rebels have used these supplies to fire on U.S. ships from Yemen. Iran also has harassed U.S. naval ships with speedboats in international waters. And in the most embarrassing event for the U.S., the Iranians captured U.S. sailors and showcased them on public TV. All this demonstrated to the world how feeble the U.S. was.
On February 3, 2017, President Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire - they do not appreciate how "kind" President Obama was to them. Not me!” And now the Iranians know that Trump is serious after his strike Syria.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is known for his skepticism of Iran and its intentions, and rightly so. As commander of CENTCOM, he focused most of his attention on Iran and was very vocal about the threats from Iran to the Obama administration. And recently he said, "As far as Iran goes, this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world…”
President Trump and his team understand that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, they will have another North Korean problem on their hands, but far worse.
The Trump administration showed that if any strike occurs against Iran, it will likely be unexpected and will not entail weeks of diplomatic wrangling giving time for the Iranians to maneuver. We can be sure that President Trump has been briefed on strike options against Iran already.
Put this all together, and it does not bode well for the Iranians if they continue their mischief. Iran has been playing with fire and pushing the envelope for the past eight years. (Most would say almost 20 years.) Their days of acting unimpeded in the region might be numbered.