Episode Description: This week, Reza breaks down the Trump administration’s shifting rationale for killing Qassem Soleimani, the questions that regime change advocates are never forced to answer, and Trump’s efforts to extort Europe into killing the Iran nuclear deal.
Shervin Malekzadeh, Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University, chats with Reza about why Iranians can both mourn Soleimani’s assassination and protest against their government, why recent protests in Iran are different than what we’ve seen in the past, and how what’s transpired over the past two weeks is a microcosm of the Iranian American experience since 1979.
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About Reza Marashi: With 15 years of experience working in both the U.S. government and Washington DC think tank world, Reza Marashi breaks down American foreign policy, the lack of diplomatic engagement and military restraint that is guiding it, the cast of characters that are making this unsustainable problem worse, and how all of this is firmly not in the national interest of the United States.
Greetings. Good people of the world. Come on in. Sit down. Relax. Put on your fancy iPhone earbuds. You are now listening to The Message, a podcast that breaks down American foreign policy, the lack of diplomatic engagement in the military restraint that is guiding it, the cast of characters that are making this unsustainable problem worse and how all of this is firmly not in the national interest of the United States.
I’m your host, and my name is Reza Marashi. Before we go any further, make sure to subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast Google podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, YouTube or whatever your favorite podcast platform might be. And if you like what you hear go to Iranian dot com, click on the ‘donate’ button and help us continue to fulfill our mission of giving knowledge to the people.
Every week, we’re gonna do three things for you. One, breakdown three news stories that you should know about. Two, interview smart, intellectually honest people who deserve to be heard. And three answer your questions that you email to our mailbag. So, without further ado, enjoy the show to kick things off.
This week, we’re going to go beyond the headlines into a deep dive on three important news stories that the people need to know about. Why do the people need to know about these new stories? That’s a great question. Thanks for asking. The people need to know, because each of these stories highlights the core tenant that this podcast is built upon, which is that the foundations of American foreign policy are firmly not in the national interest of the United States.
Story number one that the people need to know about this week. The Trump Administration’s shifting rationale for killing Soleimani and why it’s troubling for a variety of reasons. One reason that I think stands out to me but hasn’t been as discussed as widely as it should be is the very serious questions it raises regarding the legal basis for this drone strike. So, first things first it’s clear that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force or a AUMF for short that was put into place against al Qaida certainly doesn’t apply to Iran. Nor does the 2002 AUMF that was put into place against Iraq that also doesn’t apply to Iran, and you don’t need to take my word for it a letter from Mike Pompeo State Department last July admits that the Trump administration can’t use the 2001 or 2000 to AUMF for anything related to Iran. This begs the question. Does the president’s commander in chief authority under Article two of the Constitution provide legal authority to kill Soleimani?
Well, given that one, Soleimani was a state actor, as opposed to a non-state actor like ISIS or Al Qaeda and two, the strike was carried out with significant escalation risks regarding war with Iran and three, more US Military forces were already being sent to the region in case a wider war erupted the case for unilaterally going around Congress to conduct this strike is incredibly unconvincing. And I think it’s also worth asking if traditional “just war rationale” now provides Trump with legal authority to kill Soleimani. Now, despite the decades-long conflict between the US and Iran, the US is not in active declared hostilities with Iran, thus Soleimani can’t be targeted as part of a declared “hostile force”, as one might do in wartime. Therefore, Soleimani only becomes a legitimate target under the law of war if the strike was defensive in the context of an ongoing attack that Soleimani was a part of, or if preemption was necessary to stop a truly imminent attack on the United States; a case that Trump and his team have struggled to convincingly make to this very day. Furthermore, the legality of killing Soleimani, separate from whether one views the drone strike as moral, which it isn’t unless you think it’s okay if other countries start doing it too or strategic, which it isn’t because America is less safe today as a result of killing Soleimani and further away from a diplomatic solution to our problems with Iran than at any time in recent memory. So, if it seems like the Trump administration is lying when it tries to justify why they killed Soleimani, that’s because they are.
Story number two that the people need to know about this week. Regime change in Iran. More specifically, a memo written by an adviser to former national security adviser John Bolton called for taking disproportionate military strikes against the Iranian government in an effort to weaken its position at home and facilitate regime change via implosion. Now, fast forward to two weeks ago and you see where the Trump administration may have gotten the idea to kill Soleimani. Equally important but less understood, however, are the questions that regime change proponents are never forced to answer, especially questions about the day after regime change takes place. So, with that in mind, some questions that I have for people wanting regime change in Iran, for example, who will replace the Iranian government? What groups and institutions are going to support regime change both inside Iran and outside of Iran? What opposition figures are going to lead this replacement of the Iranian government, who specifically name names? If a civil war breaks out in Iran are the regime change architects going to accept responsibility for such chaos? And what is their plan for a potential civil war in Iran? We need details. If negative repercussions spread regionally, like strengthening ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or having ISIS spread to inside of Iran, are the regime change architects prepared to accept responsibility for this? And what is their plan to fix such a disastrous course of actions? Do they have any plan that doesn’t involve expanding US military operations in the Middle East even more? And if regime change in Iran provokes attacks on Americans, are the architects of this plan prepared to accept responsibility for those attacks? What is their plan to stop such attacks on Americans should they take place in a regime change scenario?
Now, in reality, not only does the Trump administration have zero plan for any of this whatsoever, it’s also not in the national interest of the United States to determine or dictate the politics of other sovereign nations. It didn’t work well in Afghanistan. It didn’t work well in Iraq. It didn’t work well in Libya. It didn’t work well in Yemen and it didn’t work well in Syria. None of these places are better off today after heavy-handed US involvement and American interests are worse off today than they were prior to our interventions. There is more terrorism in the world today, not less. We spend more money on endless wars today, not less. We have more innocent people dying today, not less. We have more countries questioning our control of the global financial system, not less. And we have more countries looking toe other global powers to balance their perceived over-reliance on the US today, not less. We should allow foreign countries to determine their own political systems. America has plenty of other tools in its foreign policy and national security toolkit to maximize the gains in pursuit of American interests abroad that do not require military and economic warfare.
Story number three that the people need to know about this week, the Trump administration, Europe and the Iran nuclear deal. Now, recently the Trump administration issued a private threat to Europe that if it refused to confront Tehran and initiate a dispute mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal than the United States would impose a 25% tariff on European automobiles. And then only days later, Europe formally accused Iran of violating the nuclear deal, and it triggered the provision that could reimpose UN sanctions on Iran and unravel the remaining vestiges of the nuclear deal that Trump has been trampling upon for the past two years. Now, make no mistake, the Trump administration’s effort to coerce the European foreign policy through tariffs is 100% extortion, plain and simple. And it’s not the first time that Trump’s team has used this bullying tactic against the Europeans. Trump previously used the threat of a 25% tariff on automobiles toe win more favorable terms in America’s trade relationship with the Europeans, but not to dictate the continent’s foreign policy. This is now uncharted waters in the transatlantic relationship. The tragedy of this situation isn’t that Europeans aren’t strong enough to keep Iran inside the nuclear deal, it’s that Europeans are too weak to stand up to Donald Trump.
This whole mess started precisely because it was Trump who violated and abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018, despite his own national security team telling him that it was working and Iran was living up to its end of the bargain. Now Iran stayed in the deal after America left and reimposed sanctions despite not getting the economic benefits that were promised as part of the deal. And to this day, Europe has been unwilling to stand up to the US and deliver on its economic commitments to Iran. So after almost two years, Iran finally said enough is enough and decided to reduce the level at which it lived up to its end of the bargain to match the level of implementation on display from Europe. Now, the Europeans are only looking at Iran for accountability, and they’re not looking at the US at all. Trump has strong-armed Europe to act against its own interests and security because it doesn’t have the courage to stand up to Trump.
Looking ahead, if Europe wants to save the Iran nuclear deal, it will require a demonstration of political and economic independence from the United States not seen since the end of World War Two. So facing this daunting reality, skepticism and dissent within Europe has obviously taken root over the past few years. And to be fair, few would envy the dilemma that’s currently facing Europe. However, the decisions that Europe makes today will cement the realities of tomorrow. Europeans must learn the right lesson from their failed negotiation with Trump’s team over the past few years. Trump is a bully, and if you give him an inch, he will take a mile. Europe can push back in pursuit and protection of global interest. Or it can continue to get pushed around to its detriment. Europeans did not ask to be put in this position by Trump, but here we are. In the days and weeks ahead, as Europeans deliberate over whether or not to take a stand, they should keep one question in the front of their minds at all times. If not now, when.
And now it’s time for this week’s mailbag, where you ask me any questions you have about what’s going on in the world today, and I try to answer them to the best of my ability. If you have a question, don’t be shy. Email them into info at Iranian dot com with your name and location, and I’ll do my best to answer as many questions as I can on the next episode of the podcast. So without further ado, let’s dive right in…
Question number one in this week’s mailbag is from Mike, who’s writing in from Baltimore. Shout out of Baltimore. Thanks for writing in Mike. He says, “Hi, Reza. The situation in Iraq appears fraught with danger for American troops. The prime minister has asked that U. S forces pack their bags and leave. Meanwhile, Muqtada al Sadr is calling for a 1,000,000 man march to pressure the US to leave and has threatened that his and other militias will take up arms if the US does not acquiesce. My question is the following. What will the US ultimately do? I’m hearing mixed messages from Pompeo in the State Department. What says you?”
It’s a great question, Mike. Thanks for writing in, you know, and it’s a tough question to answer…before I answer the question, let’s bring everybody else up to speed that might not know what’s going on. So Iraq’s prime minister says he asked Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, to set up a mechanism for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. And not only did the Trump administration refuse, it also threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq’s very fragile economy shouldn’t move forward with its threats to expel US forces. Now, US officials also warned Iraq that it risks losing access to its account at the New York Federal Reserve, where $35 billion of its international oil sale revenues is kept if it moves to expel US troops from Iraqi soil. So I think the outrage in Iraq over the killing of a serving Iranian general and a senior Iraqi official on Iraqi soil quickly prompted moves by Baghdad to seek the expulsion of US Troops from the country and the threat of possible US Sanctions, I think may lead to a slower negotiated withdrawal of these forces. But I do think the end result will be an outcome that Tehran and its allies in Iraq have agitated for over the past few years. And I think it’s important to point out here that the U.S drone strike altered the domestic balance of power in Iraq as the internal debate immediately turned from systemic political change to protecting Iraqi sovereignty. And among the political elite leaders who had previously sympathized with Iraqi protesters goals and who had sought to clip the wings of the increasingly powerful groups which have close ties to Iran, were forced to tow the defending sovereignty and America must be kicked out lines that were promoted by those very same groups. So, once again, Washington has miss red Iraqi politics, and in doing so, the creator of the current Iraqi political elite, Iran, may end up being its savior while simultaneously protecting its own interests in Iraq at the cost of Trump’s preferred course of action. So to answer your question, yes, I do think that US forces are going to be leaving Iraq before the end of this year.
Question number two from this week’s mailbag is from Armand in Washington, DC. Shout-out to DC, it’s been a minute since I’ve been there. Thanks for writing in Arman. He writes, “Hello Mr. Marashi. The US benefits greatly from having Iran as a boogeyman, helping them sell billions of dollars of weapons to Persian Gulf countries and using Iran as a reason to maintain military bases in the region. Is it possible that Soleimani was taken out by the US because of a possible detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia? And in general, how do you see relations between Iran and its neighbors, specifically Persian Gulf countries moving forward?”
It’s a great question, Arman. Thanks for asking. You know, is it possible that Soleimani was killed because of a possible detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Yeah, it’s possible. I mean, the Iraqi prime minister said that Soleimani was carrying Iran’s response to a Saudi mediation overture that Iraq was facilitating. Now, right now, I honestly don’t know if that’s true or not. Until I have a chance to talk to some of my government contacts around the world about this it’s just as likely in my mind that the Saudis were in on the hit and they’re floating all these stories about de-escalation with Iran to the media in an effort to deflect attention away from them.
Now, of course, there’s an easy way to know for sure if the Saudi they’re truly pursuing detente with Iran, and that’s if they finish that pursuit of detente in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death. I mean the region is even more chaotic now in the aftermath of his killing, which should incentivize the Saudis to pursue de-escalation even more than before. If they don’t pursue it, then we have our answer.
So, the ball is in Saudi Arabia’s court and we’ll see what they do, and I think the same holds true for the UAE. To their credit, they publicly met with Iranian officials to discuss maritime security a few months ago, and they also released $700 million of frozen Iranian funds, but still, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where key backers of Trump’s aggressive, militaristic Iran policy. So if they’re serious about improving relations with Iran, then they need to abandon this hostility and focus on peaceful solutions predicated on collective security.
Now, with regards to other Persian Gulf countries, Bahrain is essentially a Saudi lackey at this point, and Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have pretty good relations with Iran. So it’s really just the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Persian Gulf that need to get their act together and start sustained diplomacy with Iran to resolve their problems peacefully. So, do I think they’ll pursue the right course of action with Iran? I think it will depend on what happens in the next US Presidential election. If the Persian Gulf countries don’t feel like they can count on America to fight their battle with Iran for them, then they’ll be more likely to pursue peaceful relations with Iran.
Question number three from this week’s mailbag comes from Jasmine, and she’s writing in from San Antonio shout out to San Antonio. Thanks for writing in Jasmine. She says: “Hi, Reza. As you’ve probably heard, senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Mike Braun sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging for an investigation of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian American grassroots organization. What are the driving forces behind this? Is this merely a publicity stunt or something that Attorney General William Barr will take seriously and act on? Thanks.”
Well, yes. Jasmine, I have heard the news because around 25 to 30 people texting me about it. So let’s work backwards here. Is this a publicity stunt? No, I don’t think it is. Look, at best, these senators are hoping that this will cause people in DC who work in, like the policy community in government and so on and so forth to treat NIAC like lepers and to raise the cost of being publicly associated with NIAC. And I think they’re also hoping that this will cause divisions in the Iranian American community, right. But at worst I think they know that they may only have one year left of Trump’s presidency, and as a result, they’re really gonna hit hard while they still can. And it’s possible that Attorney General Barr will act on this, especially if the senators get into the ear of Trump’s donors. And then those donors get into the year of Trump and Jared Kushner and others in the White House about this kind of stuff. So I think if you’re NIAC, you hope for the best. But you absolutely plan for the worst, and you need a strategy going forward and we’ll see how that all shakes out.
Now, in terms of what are the driving forces behind this? I think it’s important to take a step back here and do the math, alright. Ted Cruz’s national security adviser is the former managing director of the Israel Project, which is a group that spent a lot of time and money trying to sabotage US Iran diplomacy, kill the Iran nuclear deal and tarnish my name and the name of other people that I work with. What about Tom Cotton? Tom Cotton is a former Iraq war veteran who thinks Iran is the reason why America lost the war and is gung ho on taking out the Iranian government by any means necessary. And I’m less familiar with why Braun is getting wrapped up in all of this as he’s not of a prominent voice on Iran related issues but nevertheless. So who are the big money backers for these senators? That’s another important question to ask. The same people that give pallets of cash, the hawkish DC think tanks as well as Trump’s election campaigns. So you know what? I’m gonna tell you guys a little story. I’ll probably burn some bridges by saying this publicly, but it wouldn’t be the first time that my honesty has gotten me into trouble.
So these right-wing senators that are calling for the Justice Department to investigate NIAC. They always get support from the same right-wing think tanks, and they speak at the same right-wing think tanks. There are many, so you know which ones I’m talking about. Well, these right-wing think tanks offered me jobs immediately after I left NIAC, and they offered again six months ago, and they offered again last week when it looked like the U. S. And Iran might go to war. But they’re clever about it. They don’t do it directly. They use intermediaries that I worked with in the Bush administration. And these think tanks are all funded by the same array of donors that I previously mentioned. And they all have the same ideological proclivities as those donors and as these right-wing senators. So the pitch to me was literally pick which think tank works best for your career aspirations over 2 to 4 year time frame, and we’ll use our network to facilitate it like they wanted me to flip and start saying the opposite of all the things I’ve been saying over the duration of my entire career. And they wanted dirt on Trita Parsi and they offered me a very big bag of cash from my services. But what they failed to realize, however, is that unlike many people in DC, I am not a piece of shit with zero integrity who can be bought. So to answer your question, those of the driving forces behind all of this.