ICYMI: Sullivan Says Tougher Deterrent Policies Will Help Avert War with Iran, Not Appeasement
WASHINGTON—In an interview with NBC’s Kristen Welker last week, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), pressed the Biden administration to reestablish deterrence with regard to Iran and its terrorist proxies following the announcement that U.S. and British military forces, with assistance from other allies, launched a strike against Houthi rebels in Yemen. For months, the Iranian-backed Houthis have been launching missiles and drones against military and commercial vessels traversing the Red Sea, substantially disrupting trade and shipping.
“I think the way in which you avoid a wider war is to show much more toughness with regard to Iranian proxies,” Sen. Sullivan said. “Whether it's Hamas, Hezbollah or the Houthis, when they're taking action to kill American service members, that's where we need to draw the line. What happened with regard to deterrence? Previously the Iranians thought that, through the Quds Force, they could kill Americans with impunity. That had to stop, and that's why I strongly supported and encouraged President Trump to kill the leader of the Quds Force, Soleimani. We certainly reestablished deterrence back then. And what I worry is that deterrence has now unraveled.”
Sullivan also emphasized that reestablishing sanctions against the Iranian oil and gas regime would have strong bipartisan support from Congress.
SULLIVAN: Strikes on Houthis Were Long Overdue
WELKER: First, I want to ask you, of course, about the news that we have been talking about--President Biden ordering those airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi targets in Yemen. What was your reaction to learning that? Do you think that it went far enough?
SULLIVAN: No, I don't think it went far enough. I've been encouraging the Biden administration for weeks to take much more aggressive actions. So I supported the strikes, but they were long overdue. But the previous segment you just had on really gets to the heart of the matter, and that's the broader appeasement strategies that the Biden administration has undertaken with regard to Iran.
They reversed a number of initiatives that the Trump administration had put forward, and I've actually talked to the President and Jake Sullivan directly about reestablishing deterrence with regard to Iran, and in particular, re-imposing things like sanctions against their oil and gas sector, sanctions against their ballistic missile sector. I think it's going to take a long time to reestablish deterrence.
And we could also start with the Houthis. I’ve pressed Secretary Blinken. They removed them from the list of organizations that sponsor terrorism. I've pressed the secretary of state for the last year and a half: Put the Houthis back on that list. They're trying to kill Americans, for goodness sake. So there's a lot more we can do that our government should be doing. But this was an important step. It was overdue, but I supported it.
WELKER: You're calling it appeasement. The Biden administration would undoubtedly take issue with that word. They would argue they are trying to get the Iran nuclear deal back on track. You are calling for tougher measures, though. And I wonder if you can be specific. What would those measures look like? For example, your colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham, is arguing that the U.S. should make strikes against the IRGC inside Iran. Is that something that you would support? Is that the type of tougher action that you're calling for?
SULLIVAN: Yes. Let me just back up again, because I do think the context is important. During the Trump administration, yes, we pulled out of the JCPOA, although the Trump administration launched a historic peace initiative. We reestablished deterrence by killing Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. And we initiated very broad based sanctions against their oil and gas sector.
By the end of the Trump administration, the Iranians had about $4 billion in foreign reserves. That's actually not a lot. Now they have about $70 billion in foreign reserves that enables them to fund their terrorist proxies. Whether it's the Houthis, Hamas, or Hezbollah. So I think reestablishing deterrence talks about—I would certainly support what Lindsey Graham said, he’s right on the kinetic side. But like I said, I had a pretty long discussion with Jake Sullivan and the President saying, you would have bipartisan support to reestablish very strong sanctions against the Iranian oil and gas regime, which is a huge source of their power.
And you may have seen, Kristen, just a few weeks ago, the U.N. sanctions against the Iranian ballistic missile sector expired. We should be pressing that again. These aren't that difficult. You would have Republican and Democratic senators supporting those kind of much more aggressive actions against Iran.
WELKER: And, of course, independent inspectors have determined that Iran is now closer to developing a nuclear weapon. But let me ask you, do you think that this is becoming a wider war, senator. How concerned are you about that?
SULLIVAN: Well, I'm concerned about it, and I think everybody is concerned about it. But I think the way in which you avoid a wider war is to show much more toughness with regard to Iranian proxies. I don't think Iran wants a broader war. And the key is—whether it's Hamas, Hezbollah or the Houthis—when they're taking action, particularly action, Kristen—and they've been doing this a lot just in the last few weeks—to kill American service members, that's where we need to draw the line.
What happened with regard to deterrence previously was that the Iranians thought that, through the Quds Force, they could kill Americans with impunity. You might remember Soleimani and the Quds Force ended up killing and wounding over 2,000 American service members in Iraq through Iraqi Shia militias. That had to stop, and that's why I strongly supported and encouraged President Trump to kill the leader of the Quds Force, Soleimani.
We certainly reestablished deterrence back then. And what I worry is that deterrence has now unraveled. It's difficult to reestablish deterrence, but if the President took much stronger actions against the Iranians, kinetic and non-kinetic, like sanctions, he would get support from both Democratic and Republican senators. I'm sure of that.
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