Amb. James Jeffrey: Iran is strategic threat to region

“What we have seen is that when the United States reacts strongly to Iran,” Jeffrey said, “sinking much of it navy in 1988, killing Qassim Soleimani, as well as his Iraqi agent, Muhandis, in 2000, Iran backs down.”
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (Photo: Kurdistan 24).
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (Photo: Kurdistan 24).

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) –  James Jeffrey heads the Middle East Program at Washington’s Wilson Center. Previously, he served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey (Dec. 2008—Jul. 2010); ambassador to Iraq (Aug. 2010—Jun 2012}; Special Representative for Syrian Engagement (Aug. 2018—Nov. 2020); and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS (Jan. 2019 -Nov. 2020.)

Kurdistan 24 spoke with Amb. Jeffrey last week. Our discussion focused on the attacks by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria as well as Iranian influence in those countries.

That subject includes how the Biden administration is responding to those challenges and how it should respond. Jeffrey does not think it is doing enough.

The interview began with Jeffrey’s clear statement of what he sees as the greatest challenge to regional order and stability: namely, Iran.

“The most important reality in the Middle East today is a threat to the entire system security by Iran,” he said. “We see this in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, but also in Iraq.”

Regarding Iraq, “We do not think that the Prime Minister, Mr. Al-Sudani, hates America. We work well with him,” Jeffrey said. “But we do think that the Iranian-backed militias take orders from Tehran, not Baghdad.”

“It’s a tremendous mistake to integrate them into the [Iraqi] army,” Jeffrey said, as “it’s a mistake for them to have a political role as militias in the parliament, in the judicial system.” 

“We see this in things from the dismissal of the Speaker of Parliament in Baghdad to the delay in getting the oil pipeline [from the Kurdistan Region] to Ceyhan, Turkey running again,” he continued.

Jeffrey attributed these challenges to Iranian maneuvers, which include repeated attacks on U.S. forces. 

Biden Administration: Intel/Policy Failure on Iran, Middle East

Jeffrey drew a sharp distinction between the perspectives of senior political figures in the Biden administration and that of the U.S. military.

“The Biden administration, unlike the U.S. military, does not really recognize this to the degree that it should, and it does not want a confrontation with Iran,” Jeffrey said. But “Iran is forcing a confrontation. That is the basic problem we have right now.”

Indeed, the position of the Biden administration reflects a far-reaching misunderstanding of the dynamics of the contemporary Middle East. Although that misunderstanding has led to the current crisis, the Biden administration has not really changed its policy, as Jeffrey suggested.

In Jan. 2021, when the Biden administration took office, senior officials believed that the region’s major conflicts and tensions had largely been created by aggressive policies pursued by previous Republican administrations, going back to George W. Bush and his response to the 9/11 attacks. 

Just three months ago, on Sept. 29, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed that view, including its erroneous assumptions and expectations. That is when he addressed an event hosted annually by the liberal, generally well-regarded magazine, The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Festival advertises itself as a two-day forum for “bold thinkers,” during which “a lively exchange of complex ideas” regularly occurs.

But when it came to the discussion with Sullivan, it fell far short.

A Pollyannish View of the Middle East

Sullivan was interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief. Notably, Goldberg had no problem with Sullivan’s cheery perspective that all that was required to secure peace and quiet in the Middle East was an accommodating U.S. posture.

America’s real national security problems, as both Sullivan and Goldberg seemed to suggest, lie with peer competitors, like Russia and China. The interview was conducted more than 18 months into Russia’s war with Ukraine, and by then Iran had emerged as a major arms supplier to Moscow. But that did not figure in their view of Iran. They spoke as if a country had to be a major power to be a big problem for the U.S.

The discussion of Iran began with Sullivan's explanation to Goldberg of all the problems, a litany of complaints, that existed in the Middle East, in Jan. 2021, when he entered the White House.

“When we came into office, you had the war in Yemen raging, as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe,” Sullivan said. And “a few months” earlier, “you had our embassy in Baghdad stormed,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to pull “the entire American mission out of Iraq.” In addition, Sullivan continued, “You had Iranian groups in both Syria and Iraq firing missiles at U.S. forces.”

Those problems, in Sullivan’s recounting, were addressed by the policy of the Biden administration, which was “to depressurize, de-escalate, and ultimately integrate the Middle East region.”

“Challenges remain,” Sullivan continued, “but the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced.”

That was wishful thinking—reflecting the dubious kind of staff work, in which the boss is told, to his relief and satisfaction, there is no problem here.

But that approach can easily blow up unexpectedly. And, indeed, that is exactly what happened less than ten days after Sullivan spoke—on Oct. 7, as Hamas launched its extraordinarily brutal cross-border assault on Israel; followed by the war in Gaza, along with significantly increased violence in the broader Middle East: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthis now threaten international shipping.

As the highly-regarded Institute for the Study of War has summarized this situation, “Iran and its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East.”

Iran is orchestrating its proxies’ attacks, and the basic problem now, as Jeffrey and others have said, is that the Biden administration is not ready to confront Iran: to tell Tehran it must stop or it will face very serious consequences

“What we have seen is that when the United States reacts strongly to Iran,” Jeffrey said, “sinking much of its navy in 1988, killing Qassim Soleimani, as well as his Iraqi agent, Muhandis, in 2000, Iran backs down.”

To stop the attacks from Iran’s proxies, Jeffrey suggested, “would require threatening key Iranian assets,” rather than the limited, tit-for-tat military actions with which the Biden administration has, so far, responded to those assaults. 

“But I do not think this administration at this time is ready to do that,” he said.