Roundtable: What do students make of the foreign policy crisis between Iran and the United States?

Representatives for Political Review, College Democrats, College Republicans and the Alexander Hamilton Society weigh in on the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the endless wars in the Middle East and the probability of peace.


Hunter Long

American flag (Photo by Hunter Long // The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Hustler Roundtable

Over the past few weeks Iran and the United States have been posturing strength and escalating with tit-for-tat retaliations, worrying observers about the outbreak of conflict. Young people in this country have grown up with two-decade wars in the Middle East. To talk through where we’re at and where we may be going, Editorial Director Max Schulman and Opinion Editor Miquéla Thornton moderated a debate-style conversation among Rahan Arasteh of Vanderbilt Political Review, Ben Noon of the Alexander Hamilton Society (a foreign policy organization), Will Fritzler of Vanderbilt College Republicans and Will Newell of Vanderbilt College Democrats. We recommend that you bounce around the discussion considering the length and the debate-style format. Fritzler is also a reporter on The Hustler.


The transcript below has been edited for clarity.


Max Schulman: Opinion Editor Miquéla Thornton will be joining us shortly. Us two will be moderating the conversation regarding the ongoing events between Iran and the United States. First, here’s a quick timeline of events: 


We’ll start with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. That was an executive agreement under President Barack Obama, which was signed by Iran, the United States and a number of European powers. In the agreement, Iran accepted changing its nuclear program from weapons production to commercial use for ten years and agreed to inspections to confirm compliance with the deal. In exchange, the United States and other nations lifted economic sanctions on Iran. Fast-forward to the campaign trail in 2016 and then-candidate Trump begins maligning the Iran Deal, saying it was a bad deal and that we need to renegotiate it or pull out of it. He’s elected president. Two years in, on May 8, 2018, Trump announced that the United States will be withdrawing from the Iran Deal. Iran and European powers including France, the United Kingdom and Germany stay in the deal.


After that, we see escalations in U.S.-Iranian tensions. Between Aug. and Nov. 2018 the U.S. reimposes economic sanctions on Iran. A bunch of things happen over the next few months. Trump says that he will designate the Iranian Revolution Guard, Iran’s militia, as a foreign terrorist organization. Iran then designates the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism. On May 5, 2019 John Bolton, then-National Security Adviser said that the U.S. will increase Air Force presence in the Middle East. On July 18, 2019, Trump announced that an Iranian drone was shot down by a U.S. Navy vessel. 


Fast-forward to a more quick succession of escalations. In late December of 2019, the Kataib Hezbollah, which receives assistance from the IRG launches an attack in Kirkuk, Iraq and killing a U.S. contractor. That causes the U.S. to retaliate, launching rocket attacks on Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah protesters then storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Anticipating Iranian retaliation, Trump orders an air strike on Qasem Soleimani, head of the IRG, outside of the Baghdadi airport. That brings us to the very tense moment that we are in right now. Jan. 8 of this year, Iran launches multiple rockets on U.S.-Iraqi bases in Iraq. Currently, we’re in a bit of flux: there appears to be some easing of tensions. That remains to be determined. So now we’re going to turn to these nice people to discuss where we’re at, where we’re going and what this means for the world. 


First question: a big event that got the situation to the front of national attention was the killing of Qasem Soleimani. We’ll start with Will Fritzler. Do you believe that President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani (and the others killed in the strike, including an Iraqi militia leader) was an appropriate response to supposed intelligence that IRG and its proxies were planning a move on U.S. diplomats and troops?


Will Fritzler: For the most part, yes. There’s no question that it was an escalation by President Trump to respond to the U.S. embassy attack by killing Iran’s second-most powerful leader. You can ask the question of whether this magnitude of response was justified. I think it was more of a symbolic decision than anything else.


There’s been a conversation about the intelligence surrounding the killing and whether Soleimani represented a true threat. I think it is a valid question of whether there was a clear-and-present danger to U.S. troops in Iraq that justified the killing. But at the end of the day I think the symbolism of killing Soleimani as a proper counterattack to the attack on the embassy is a valuable strategy that Trump used. But it was also very unexpected. I read that his advisers put that on the table to make the other options seem more tenable. It was a surprising decision, and it took me by surprise a little, but I think the U.S. is in a position of strength in the region and to orchestrate this killing wasn’t completely off the books.


Rahan Arasteh: The U.S. attack on General Soleimani wasn’t necessarily the right course of action in my opinion. You have to think about what this attack would cause domestically in both Iran and in Iraq and the U.S. Now how we got him [Soleimani] out of the country was technically a war crime because he was in Iraq on a diplomatic basis. The Prime Minister of Iraq confirmed that he came out because Trump asked the Iraqi PM to negotiate a peace agreement or detente between the U.S. and Iran. That’s already a very dramatic escalation and what the Geneva Convention would consider a war crime.


And even within Iran, Soleimani’s replacement is just as radical as he was. So we have to think about what this would achieve within the country and about domestic affairs in Iran. You have to realize that Iran was in a very precarious position before all this happened. Domestically, the government was facing months and months of protests going as far back as 2017. Suddenly, with the killing of Soleimani, you see a very large countermovement in support of the regime. The regime can very easily point to the United States and say, “Look at these guys, they are attacking us. We shouldn’t be squabbling between ourselves right now. We should unite against the foreign force.” This is what happened in the revolution after the [Iran-] Iraq War and it is what is happening now on the ground.


Ben Noon: I think you’re totally right that the administration took a big risk in uniting both Iraqi politics and Iranian politics against the U.S. But at the same time, this risk was taken to reassert deterrence in the region. So, after the attacks on Saudi oil fields and tankers in the region, the Trump administration’s policy seemed to have all bark and no bite. Trump was being aggressive economically and he talked big, but nothing came from it. That emboldened the Iranians to think that they could actually strike back and have nothing come from it. So right before Soleimani died, when Hezbollah attacked the embassy, I believe Khameini tweeted something along the lines of, “You can’t stop us, you can’t respond to this.”


Then we killed Soleimani. The idea behind this attack was basically to be the most dramatic escalation humanly possible – to reassert deterrence. We’ve seen from the result of this that, in the short term, Iran’s response has been really constrained. Their counterattack on the American base killed no one. And given the fact that Iran has shown that they have developed precision-strike capabilities recently, we probably know for a fact that they weren’t even trying to kill anyone. That shows that Iran was trying to communicate some kind of response but knew that anything beyond that would be suicidal. So I think in the short term, it was a justified move because it worked. In the long term, it might hurt Trump’s strategy in the region.


Will Newell: I think that Ben is absolutely correct that deterrence matters, and that Iran’s retaliation, given hindsight, was probably not as significant as what we did to them. I think that taking out Soleimani is a much larger blow to Iranian interests than the rockets that landed in our bases were to ours. However, that all depends upon the assumption – if you are a foreign policy planner in the Trump administration – that this is all going to go off without a hitch. In hindsight, it kind of seems like we came out of this without any human losses in the short term. However, there are some long term consequences that you have to consider. Additionally, you have to consider the possibility of a miscalculation. What happens if one of those rockets lands a little bit off-course? What happens if U.S. service personnel or Iraqi service personnel are in the wrong place at the wrong time? If they get hit by one of those rockets or even just wounded, then Trump is going to escalate.


He’s chosen this path of strength all of the sudden, as Ben has been saying, and he’s not going to go back from that now – at least I don’t think it’s very likely, given the extremely drastic and surprising step he took in killing Soleimani. So I think that that type of brinksmanship just rolls the dice in a way that could cost a huge number of lives. The danger in that is hard to overstate. And we don’t know what Iran’s full retaliation is going to look like. I would imagine that the country is utterly humiliated right now. They had a stampede at this general’s funeral which killed a bunch of innocent people. They may have, some Pentagon officials are saying, shot down a civilian airliner over Tehran. They didn’t kill any American personnel in response to the death of their biggest general – but I’m not sure they are done. And I think it’s very likely that they’re going to use their proxies, that they’re going to use the plausible deniability that they’ve used in the past, to hit U.S. interests and allies again. Whether this happens over years, months – who knows? We can’t be sure what’s going to happen.


Miquéla Thornton: The only experience our generation has had with war was the U.S. involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Middle East policy has been dominated by the reverberations of 9/11. How do you believe that these facts will shape our generation’s disposition towards this conflict?


WF: I think in the long term this conflict won’t shape our outlook that much. I view this as more of a flashpoint than anything else. Perhaps this will focus our attention on Iran as opposed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But I don’t expect this to be a long term violent conflict like Iraq and Afghanistan were. And I think President Trump’s mentality right now, and has always been, to pull back from the region – irrespective of his success in that. His decisions in this timeline have been pretty sound in not committing too many U.S. resources to the region, to avoid having another Iraq or Afghanistan. 


I do think it renews a focus on foreign policy for kids like us who are interested in politics because the Middle East is such a fraught and divisive area for foreign policy – arguably the most challenging foreign policy area for our government. It’s kind of receded into the background in this election cycle but it might come back. The biggest effect I would argue is that it’ll renew the voter’s focus on the region. But it doesn’t fundamentally alter the Middle East narrative.


RA: We have people right now going to fight in a war that started before they were born. There’s no way that that doesn’t affect how you view that region long term. We have been in the Middle East since right after I was born. But in terms of how this affects us long term, I think you would see the American populus become more and more resigned to the fact that we’re always going to be in the region. I think this is very different than what we saw regarding Vietnam, where the college-age kids who were being drafted, forced to go start protests, the whole nation got this cognizance of what was happening in the area because it could affect them. And for America, the bad effects of war typically don’t affect America. And given the fact that we’ve been in the region for the past twenty years – even more if you want to consider the Gulf War – we’ve become sort of resigned.


BN: I think it might hammer home a little bit more for some people our age how risky international politics is at any given moment. The Trump administration has tried most of the time to refocus our policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia, Europe and other areas outside the Middle East, thinking that it has less relevance strategically today than it did, say, ten years ago. But even then it’s a tragedy of trying to find a way we can do so without causing more catastrophe as you leave. There’s this grand problem for the administration today of how you can leave the region without leaving all of our allies out to dry. So I think it hammers home that it will always be difficult to craft foreign policy that can balance your objectives at all points.


WN: Absolutely. It’s important to recognize that one of the biggest tragedies about 9/11 is how it became a justification to take actions that weren’t commensurate with what we needed to actually do in the wake of 9/11. This may be divisive, but I think the Iraq War was not the proper response to 9/11 – maybe that’s not divisive anymore. But the fact that we stepped into Iraq 20 years ago, we’re there now, and the Iraqi parliament, with an overwhelming majority, asked our troops to leave, and that Iraqi parliament is now rather aligned with Iranian interests – that’s really concerning. 


I think it goes to show that a lot of our efforts in that region that came as a response to 9/11 have not borne fruit. I’m not saying that Sadam Hussein was a good guy or anything. But I am saying that our foreign policy has been a product of 9/11 for 20 years and it’s not having the results that we thought it would. As for the current conflict’s relationship to 9/11, I think we have to be on alert for how 9/11 can become a sort of political tool to justify further interventions and actions that are not appropriate responses. We saw [Vice President] Mike Pence, for example, claim very dubiously that Soleimani had a connection to the 9/11 hijackers; and yet, we know that Saudi Arabia, not Iran, was one of the driving forces behind training those hijackers and getting them in place to commit the attacks. So we have to be on guard, as citizens, for the misuse of our political memory to justify potentially disastrous foreign policy decisions. 


MS: We got a lot of good info there. This is probably going to be the last question, so try to keep the points reasonably short.


MT: On Jan. 7th, deputy Iranian foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi said that “Iran is ready to come back with full compliance with the JCPOA,” and Trump said that he’s willing to negotiate the Iran deal. We would like to know if you believe that a nuclear deal is still a realistic prospect.  


WN.: We’re probably not going to see a return to a nuclear deal anytime soon. A lot’s going to have to change in the U.S. and then in Iran before that happens. I think that the fundamental theory behind sanctions is that there needs to be an off-ramp, or some kind of condition for which the sanctions will be lifted. And that was the theory behind the JCPOA. The sanctions were putting a lot of pressure on Iran, and by signing the JCPOA, they received alleviation from those sanctions. 


However, if it’s not clear what the United States and its allies want from Iran, and if it’s not clear whether the U.S. can be trusted in any negotiations, then how are we going to arrive at a point where there is an off-ramp to those sanctions? If you look at the specific circumstances of the Soleimani killing, it kind of supercharges this problem because we killed him on a diplomatic mission. Had we killed him in a different context, that’s a whole different ball game, but at least we wouldn’t be sending the message that the U.S. might be sabotaging negotiations. I’m not saying that that’s going to happen again, but it certainly is not good for diplomacy. It’s not good for the perception and legitimacy of the U.S. to be conducting airstrikes against people on diplomatic missions. 


BN: I think it all goes under the line that Trump is a high stakes player and this is a really, really risky move from the start. I think after the strike and after these past couple days, there is a small window of opportunity where, given how shocked the Iranian leadership was by this attack and how minimal their response was, that if the U.S. wants to reach out to back channels, or do some sort of open negotiations – that could work. If, however, we just kept the pressure indefinitely, the Iranian leadership may try to begin to rapidly move toward a nuclear weapon. So there’s a very short window of opportunity that I think the administration has to potentially expand on the terms of the JCPOA. In the short term, it’s a good move. Maybe long term, if they sit on their hands for too long, this won’t work out. 


WF: I think the JCPOA is a viable option. I personally think a form of diplomacy is really important in this context. But also, to adopt President Trump’s perspective, I hesitate to support a new JCPOA given the precedent it would set and the imaging that President Trump would be giving off: that basically we accept the status quo. Yet there were a lot of abuses on both sides in this case. So, I agree with Will in that there needs to be a lot that evolves in both Iran and the States before a new JCPOA comes to fruition. But the increasing violence directed at the United States in Iraq shouldn’t go unpunished. And if we adopted a new JCPOA agreement, I understand why people would interpret that as unwise, as much as I think it is viable.


RA: In the U.S., it’ll be within Trump’s game, because what he typically does is look at deals that he ragged against and then re-negotiate practically the same deal, and then put his name on it and say, “look how good I did.” You can see this with NAFTA 2.0, where he decided to go to Canada and Mexico and be like, “let’s redo it.” And the end result was practically the same deal. So the U.S. might be in on this, Trump might want to have people come look at him and look how big he is. 


In Iran, I am not sure how viable this deal will be anymore, because Soleimani was not necessarily seen as the worst person. He was seen as an instrument of the regime. He was seen as someone who, every once in a while, did crack down on protests too hard. However, he was also seen as the person who defeated ISIS, who worked with the U.S. to defeat the Taliban. So he had the view of someone who did good in the region, not necessarily in the country, but he did do things. 


And with the U.S. just assassinating him while he was on a diplomatic mission, I am not sure how you could convince the people who truly hold the power in the country – the hardliners, the Supreme leader and the anti-Western forces – that we should just go back to the status quo. I don’t see how the moderate and reformist voices in the government could convince the hardliners of that after all that’s transpired in the last four years. 


BN: I want to make a short counter to that. I totally agree with you that Iranian sentiments have hardened a lot, and that’s probably one of the worst parts about this whole ordeal. But at the end of the day, the way the administration sees it is that it doesn’t really matter how angry Iran is. They have no options. It basically demonstrates that, in this whole ordeal, that Iran has basically no options whatsoever besides what the administration wants. That’s how they view it: we’ve been so successful in our sanctions and we’ve had a huge escalation with almost no response at all. We’ve shown that they don’t want to go to war, and no side really wants to go to war, I don’t think. So, in between the war and how it is now, there only really is a new deal which fairs, the U.S, that’s how they see it at least. 


RA: That may be true, but that entire viewpoint is based on the assumption that the Iranian government cares about its people. If you look, the economy is shrunk, the sanctions have affected the people of the country, but the elite wealthy class that rule the country have barely seen a dent in their wealth. If you track back the ownership of government institutions, they all go back to essentially the same people. And they won’t care unless the people start rioting. You can see they send their kids to the West for schooling and to live. It’s a very hypocritical view that the Iranian government has, but I’m not necessarily sure that they would really care if the country’s economy were to shrink more.