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January 13, 2021 | In The News

Trump has Iran in check during vulnerable presidential transition, says congressman

On the first anniversary of the Trump-ordered strike against the Iranian Quds Force leader, defense experts say the administration’s Iran deterrence measures will contain the regime in the vulnerable presidential transition period.

But Florida Republican Rep. Greg Steube said it was the use of force to eliminate Qassem Soleimani a year ago that put America in a position of strength.

“Over 600 of my fellow servicemen and women have been killed by an IED that was made or the munitions came from Iran,” Steube told the Washington Examiner Monday, describing attacks that killed members of his 25th Infantry Division during his service in Iraq in 2006-2007.

“Soleimani was responsible for a lot of those, if not all of those,” he said.

As chief of detainee operations during the Iraq troop surge, Steube visited 26 forward and contingency operating bases in a region of Iraq that shares a border with Iran. Oftentimes, IEDs detonated on roadsides when military units were traveling.

“I was there during a pretty violent time,” the two-term congressman from southwest Florida recalled.

The Soleimani strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3, 2020, led to Iranian retaliatory missile strikes days later on Iraqi bases that hosted American troops. But largely, Iran’s support for Iraqi militias that target Americans decreased throughout the year.

That has made muscle flexing by U.S. Central Command in recent days enough to keep Iran at bay, Heritage Foundation Mid-East security expert Jim Phillips told the Washington Examiner.

“Before Soleimani was killed, Iran was launching much stronger rocket attacks through its Iraqi militias,” he said. “Iran has been surprisingly quiet up until recently in Iraq. Now, it’s starting to ratchet up the attacks again.”

On Dec. 20, 21 rockets hit inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, the protected area that is home to the U.S. Embassy.

In recent days, Iranian leaders have also made veiled threats against President Trump’s life.

“Trump imposed an economic embargo on us and will soon be deposed not just from office but from life,” Iranian President Hasan Rouhani reportedly said Friday.

Also speaking ahead of the Soleimani anniversary, Iranian judiciary chief and hard-line contender for the June presidential election Ebrahim Raisi was starker in his rhetoric.

“Those who had a role in this assassination and crime will not be safe on Earth,” Raisi reportedly said.

U.S. deterrence measures

In the days leading up to the Sunday anniversary of the assassination, the United States flew multiple B-52 bomber missions over international waters near Iran, and Trump ordered the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier not to depart the Persian Gulf as scheduled.

“That’s a useful reminder for Iran that U.S. military options don’t depend only on forces in the region,” said Phillips. “The U.S. really doesn’t need forces in the region to respond militarily in a very powerful way against Iran if it tries something.”

In November, Trump ordered the Defense Department to reduce troop levels in Iraq to 2,500 by the time he leaves office.

Steube supported the Soleimani strike but said further kinetic action in Trump’s waning days is not necessary.

“The president has approached this in exactly an appropriate measure to appropriately respond to the threats from Iran,” he said. “Everybody said that we were going to have war there. We haven’t had war there, he’s prevented war there.”

Stuebe commended the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which included pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposing devastating sanctions against the regime. Iran was forced to make a 25% cut in its military budget, he said.

“When Biden’s administration takes over, they’re already talking about just signing the old Iranian deal that the Trump administration got out of, which would then give them money to do the very things that we fought against for the years that we’ve been there,” Steube said.

Phillips warned that despite the logic that it is in Iran’s best interest to avoid any type of action against the U.S. in Trump’s final days, hard-liners inside the regime still seek to avenge the Soleimani killing.

“There’s many diffuse power centers, and those power centers are often in conflict with each other and hard-liners,” he explained.

In recent days, the Quds Force seized a South Korean oil tanker just before a South Korean diplomat was to visit Iran. South Korea holds more than $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets.

“The Revolutionary Guards would be in a position to carry out these threats. They always do utter very dire threats, but they don’t always follow up on it,” Phillips said.

On Dec. 23, Trump made his own promise to use force against Iran should it or its proxy attack American interests in his final days as president.

“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 tweeted.

“Presidential transitions are just inherently dangerous times if the U.S. has determined adversaries that think that they can extract some form of benefit,” Phillips said, uncertain what forces will prevail in Iran. “Iran needs to be very careful what it chooses to do because it is in a very dangerous place.”