The Iranian — and internal — threat to America

The Iranian — and internal — threat to America
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The one-year anniversary of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani’s death has come and gone, and the mullahs of Tehran have yet to avenge his assassination. Instead, the Iranians appear to have vented their anger on South Korea. On Jan. 3, the day Soleimani died in a U.S. drone strike, troops from Islamic Republic of Iran Navy boarded the Hankuk Chemi tanker in the Arabian Gulf, escorted it back to Iran and seized its crew. The Iranian action purportedly was in response to Seoul’s refusal to unfreeze $7 billion in assets in South Korean banks in compliance with American sanctions against Tehran.

Nevertheless, apart from continuing its longstanding practice of employing Iraqi militias to harass U.S. forces in that country, Iran has remained unusually quiescent.

For his part, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to move ahead with billion UAE weapons sale approved by Trump Fox News hires high-profile defense team in Dominion defamation lawsuit Associate indicted in Gaetz scandal cooperating with DOJ: report MORE has reprised the kind of noisy threats he hurled against Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnExclusive: GOP senators seek FBI investigation into Biden Pentagon nominee On North Korea, Biden should borrow from Trump's Singapore declaration North Korea drops out of Tokyo Olympics MORE before they became “best friends.” In response to an Iran-backed militia’s December rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Trump tweeted on Dec. 23: “Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. … Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq. … Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”


Trump previously had bolstered American presence in the region when he ordered the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz strike group back to the Gulf in response to potential Iranian aggression in the aftermath of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh and the Supreme Leader’s vow to avenge his death. After his tweet, Trump ramped up the pressure on Tehran. In anticipation of the Jan. 3 “anniversary,” two nuclear-capable B-52H bombers — the most recent variant of the seven-decades-old plane — flew to the Middle East, in the words of Central Command, “to underscore the U.S. military's commitment to regional security and demonstrate a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.”

Even more conspicuously, on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death, Trump reversed Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller’s two-day-old order to bring the Nimitz back to Bremerton, Wash., after an arduous 10-month deployment in the Middle East. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had disagreed with Miller, and Trump upheld their stance. 

Nevertheless, the threat to America will not come from Iran. The ayatollahs are fully aware that President-elect BidenJoe BidenIRS to roll out payments for ,000 child tax credit in July Capitol Police told not to use most aggressive tactics in riot response, report finds Biden to accompany first lady to appointment for 'common medical procedure' MORE and key members of his incoming staff are committed somehow to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, former Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy: Michigan reps reintroduce measure for national 'forever chemicals' standard |  White House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill Kerry to visit China ahead of White House climate summit CO2 tax support is based in myth: Taxing essential energy harms more than it helps MORE, who presided over the deal, as well as Wendy Sherman, who negotiated its details, will play major roles in the new administration. Kerry, in addition to acting as a special envoy on climate matters, will have a seat on the National Security Council. Sherman is Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of State. 

Although Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of the 2015 agreement, Tehran has little incentive to complicate relations with Biden, who will be far less hostile than his predecessor. 

On the other hand, the threat to America now may be internal: It appears to be President Trump. Biden’s team may seek to calm tensions with Iran, but what Trump might choose to do is an entirely different matter. On its face, he would have little incentive to escalate tensions to the point of hostilities. He does not want to be blamed for launching another costly, “endless” Middle East war. He, therefore, might simply limit himself to additional threatening tweets.


Nevertheless, Trump has demonstrated that he has no compunction about undermining America’s constitutional process, even to the point of encouraging what appeared to be nothing less than a full-throated insurrection — for that is what the attempted takeover of the Capitol by his supporters on Wednesday certainly was. In his seemingly unbalanced state, he might choose to launch an attack on an Iranian facility, the consequences to America be damned.

Hopefully, should he entertain any such idea, the military will talk him off the precipice, as it reportedly has done before. If it can stall him a bit for two more weeks, America will have a chance both to avoid war and to begin on the path of what certainly will be an exceedingly difficult and painful  recovery.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.