World a 'Safer Place' With Trump Out of Office, Iran Spokesperson Says

An Iranian government spokesperson had said the world will be a safer place with President Donald Trump out of office, as the regime in Tehran looks ahead to a potential diplomatic thaw with President-elect Joe Biden.

Ali Rabiyee told reporters Tuesday that the world will be safer for all countries once Trump is out of the White House, and that Tehran does not seek dangerous militarization and posturing in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.

The U.S. and Iran have come close to war several times during Trump's term. Relations collapsed after the president withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran and demanding a stricter nuclear agreement.

His administration's "maximum pressure" strategy has failed to force Tehran back to the negotiating table, though the country is now largely cut off from the global financial market, has seen its vital oil exports strangled, and is grappling with social unrest amid economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump has also opted for extreme measures like the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, a huge blow to the regime and its foreign policy.

With the first anniversary of the Soleimani strike approaching, Iranian leaders are again threatening further retaliation while celebrating the commander's legacy.

"We are happy that Soleimani's killer will soon leave the scene of U.S. politics," Rabiyee told reporters Tuesday. "We are confident that a world without Soleimani's killer is a safer place for all nations of the world."

Soleimani was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' covert Quds Force and a confidante of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was credited with masterminding Iranian foreign policy and—as described by author Arash Azizi—acting as a de facto chief of staff for Tehran's transnational army of regional militias.

Trump is on his way out, but weeks of his term remain. Since the election, Trump has introduced new sanctions on Iran and threatened military action if attacks on American interests in Iraq continue. Top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was also assassinated near Tehran in November. The operation was reportedly conducted by Israel, but Tehran has hinted at American involvement.

Biden has said he wants to revive the JCPOA and then address other grievances, such as Iran's ballistic missile program and its regional proxy militias. Iran is in need of the sanctions relief that would go along with such a deal, and its leaders have repeatedly said they are in favor of returning to compliance with the JCPOA if the U.S. and other signatories do the same. But first they will have to navigate Trump's final weeks.

Rabiyee said Tuesday that Tehran does not want to spark a war, accusing the U.S. of fomenting regional conflict—a charge often leveled at Iran by critics citing its involvement in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

"We do not consider militarization of the Persian Gulf region to the interest of any country in the region and the world, and we hope that the U.S. will finally abandon adventurism outside its borders by abandoning the policy of intervention and fomenting division among the regional states," Rabiyee said.

Rabiyee also dismissed the U.S. claim that Iran was behind the recent rocket attack on the American embassy, after which Trump threatened retaliation if any Americans are killed in future attacks. Iranian-backed militias have regularly targeted U.S. interests in Iraq, and Tehran has historically supported militia operations against occupying American troops in the country.

"Respect for independent sovereignty of our neighbors, especially Iraq, and stability of the country is our first priority, and we do not support any action that is against the will of the Iraqi government and people," Rabiyee said.

"The Americans deployed in Iraq and their leaders are aware that there are many groups in Iraq that have strong national and ethnic motives to end the occupation as Iraqis demand, and their actions have nothing to do with the Islamic Republic of Iran," he added.

Iran has long wielded huge influence in Iraq, and its operations there—particularly the storming of the American embassy in Baghdad in December 2019—were part of the U.S. decision to assassinate Soleimani.

Internal diplomatic cables leaked in 2019 showed that Iran had extended its influence into all aspects of Iraqi political life. This pervasive Iranian presence has prompted a popular backlash among Iraqis, manifested in the burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf in 2019.

Iraq's new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been trying to reduce the influence of Iranian-linked militias—particularly the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group that is dominated by Iranian allies—in the country since coming to power in May, and bring all armed groups under the control of the national military.

But this is a daunting challenge, even with Iran's economic turmoil and the leadership vacuum from the strike that killed Soleimani and PMF chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

This month, for example, convoys of militia fighters took to the streets of Baghdad in a show of force to press for the release of men suspected of involvement in the attack on the American embassy.

The U.S. presence in Iraq, meanwhile, is set to shrink further. The Pentagon is reducing the number of troops from 3,000 to 2,500 per a recent Trump order, and the American embassy in Baghdad has temporarily reduced staff levels amid security concerns.

America's Iraq deployment is its most high-profile "forever war" and there is bipartisan support—among lawmakers and voters—for U.S. withdrawal, or at least a vastly reduced footprint. Trump ran on an unrealized promise to bring all American troops home, and Biden said on the campaign trail it was time to "end the forever wars."

But the incoming administration is likely to be more cautious than Trump in leaving Iraq, and ending the other long-running deployments in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In an article for Foreign Affairs published last spring, the former vice president said: "There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners."

"Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically," Biden wrote.

Biden's own experience speaks to the dangers of pulling out prematurely. He was part of President Barack Obama's administration that withdrew all American troops from Iraq in 2011, a decision that left a tantalizing power vacuum for the Islamic State.

In 2014 its fighters stormed across the border from Syria and seized much of the north and west of the country. The Iraqi collapse was a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration. Biden will be keen to avoid a repeat, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

So will General Lloyd Austin, Biden's nominee to be the next secretary of defense. Austin was widely criticized for downplaying the ISIS threat and accused of manipulating intelligence to support this flawed premise when leading U.S. Central Command.

Donald Trump and Melania leave White House
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk on the south lawn of the White House on December 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Getty