From Obama-era officials to eminent Middle East scholars, Stanford international affairs experts convened on Friday to discuss escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The panel provided historical context to the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani. Panelists expressed concern for the implications of both the assassination and the Trump administration’s broader foreign policy practices.
The panel, moderated by Michael McFaul M.A. ’86, former ambassador to Russia and director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, went beyond the bilateral U.S.-Iranian relations as panelists forecasted how the Trump administration’s foreign policy may influence events in the greater region — particularly highlighting the growing influence and involvement of China and Russia.
Abbas Milani, the Hamid & Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies and founding co-director of the Iran Democracy Project, began the discussion by explaining the significance of Soleimani’s assassination within Iran. He noted that prior to the attack, Iran was facing the most significant economic, political and regional challenges that it had dealt with in decades.
This discord was visible in the protests that convulsed Iran in November and December, to which the regime responded with a “brutality unmatched event in Iran,” he said. With upward of 1,000 killed and between 7,000 and 10,000 imprisoned, Milani said Iranians had begun to even question Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“All of that changed once the hit on Soleimani happened,” Milani said.
In discussing the implications of the assassination, Milani emphasized that beyond Soleimani’s role as leader of the Quds Force, Khamenei trusted Soleimani “more than anyone else.”
“He has an unusual place in the minds of many Iranians,” Milani said. “They talked about him as a Napoleon, poet, mystic. ”
Colin Kahl, who served as deputy assistant to President Obama, traced the escalatory foreign policy decisions that precipitated the strike. He explained that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and the subsequent imposition of “crippling sanctions” on energy industries in Iran led to falling oil exports — the “lifeblood” of the Iranian economy, according to Kahl.
As the U.S. has pursued this “maximum-pressure” economic campaign, he said, Iran has engaged in escalatory actions rather than acquiesce to U.S. demands.
Following the Dec. 27 death of an American contractor as a result of a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which the U.S. attributed to the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, the Pentagon presented President Trump with multiple avenues of response, according to The New York Times. Kahl explained that in his prior experience working at the Pentagon, officials would often take a “Goldilocks approach,” presenting a spectrum of choices ranging from “total war” to “capitulation” to “the option we [Pentagon officials] want” — implicitly compelling the President to pursue a middle ground.
Unlike presidents in the past, Kahl suggested that Trump appears to have chosen the most extreme option.
“What we’ve seen in just the past two weeks didn’t occur in a vacuum,” Kahl said. “It’s just the latest in a cycle of provocation between the United States and Iran that has really unfolded and escalated in the last 18 months.”
Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, highlighted the contradictions between officially-stated U.S. foreign policy and the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran.
McGurk stressed the importance of focusing strategy discussion on the alignment of ends, ways and means — essentially, the need to ask the questions, “What is the objective, how are we going to do it and what are my resources?”
The Trump administration, McGurk said, has left a gap in this alignment. He explained that the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) declares a paradigm shift away from the Middle East and toward Great Power competition — a shift of resources and strategic prioritization toward Asia and Russia. Yet, the administration’s Iran policy has proved contradictory to these stated goals, as American troops and other resources have been sent to the region and tit-for-tat escalations have kept the nation at the forefront of the agenda. Thus, the NSS and current Iran policy are “irreconcilable,” McGurk said.
Kahl expanded upon this “mismatch” of goals and resources, noting that the Trump administration has pursued maximalist objectives of imposing its will on the region yet has not been willing “to put much skin in the game.” Demonstrating the peril of this misalignment, Kahl noted that the administration has gotten further from its goals of negotiating a “better” Iran deal (the regime is now closer to a nuclear weapon than it has been in years) and in rolling back Iranian provocations, the opposite of which is clear in the recent action-reaction cycle.
“The good news,” Kahl continued, “is that the crisis has tamped down for now. The bad news is I see possibilities for it ramping back up.”
Lisa Blaydes, a political science professor and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, broadened the discussion to address the consequences of the attack on the region, with a particular focus on Iraq. She said that popular social movements in Iraq, which have taken on “a new urgency” since October 2019 against government corruption and the poor economy, now have to “take a back seat in the face of the assassination on Soleimani.”
“The movement was against the status quo, and as a result of U.S. intervention, we now start to see the status quo being enforced,” Blaydes said.
McGurk also discussed the influence of current U.S. policy on Iraq, highlighting the negative consequences that may stem from U.S. withdrawal from the country, as Iraq has requested. By leaving, the U.S. would “cede the field entirely”: Iran and Russia would likely gain greater influence in Iraq, McGurk explained. In addition, lack of U.S. pressure in the region could precipitate a resurgence of ISIS, as the terrorist organization’s networks in the region remain and can be “reconstituted easily.”
“[It] would be an irretrievable strategic setback,” McGurk said.
Milani noted that this threat of greater Chinese and Russian influence extends to the larger region, explaining that the recent, unprecedented joint naval exercise in the Persian Gulf between China, Russia and Iran demonstrates the powers’ growing influence and cooperation.
“If the [U.S.] strategic vision is to curtail and control influence in the region, it has certainly failed,” Milani concluded.
The panel drew a large audience of Stanford students, staff and members from the general public, with more than 800 RSVPs. Audience members watched from the main room, two overflow rooms or online. Michael Alisky ’23 and Daniel Gao ’23 attended the panel to learn about “one of the biggest international conflicts throughout the Trump administration,” Gao said.
“The most interesting thing to me was how this was going to impact Iran’s peripheries,” Alisky said. “[The panelists] talked about a lot of impacts that I hadn’t thought of. This is clearly going to affect more than just Iran and the U.S.”