U.S. – Iranian Confrontation: Domestic, Regional and Global Implications

U.S. - Iranian Confrontation: Domestic

Event Information


The Middle East Policy Council held its 99th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 17th: “U.S. – Iranian Confrontation: Domestic, Regional and Global Implications.” Convened two weeks after the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the panelists generally agreed that the situation would return to a status quo ante with the U.S. continuing harsh economic sanctions and Iran conducting proxy attacks against U.S. – aligned interests in the region. What was less clear is what happens in the medium to long-term, given the lack of a clearly articulated policy on Iran from the Trump administration, rapidly changing political realities in Iraq, and ongoing unpredictability from both the Iranian regime and the general population there.

Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Dr. Suzanne Maloney (The Brookings Institution); Amb. (ret.) Douglas A. Silliman (President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); Ms. Joyce Karam (Washington Correspondent, The National) and Amb. (ret.) John Limbert (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran). 

Dr. Maloney thinks that both sides dodged a bullet in recent weeks but we are not in a safe zone yet. The Trump administration will continue to rachet up economic sanctions and Iran will continue to respond with similar offensive actions in Iraq and the Gulf that occurred in 2019. And while Dr. Maloney argued that the main reason we are in this situation is due to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, she believes we need a serious discussion about where we go from here. In her view, the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration is lost and we need a new form of negotiation to emerge, perhaps including issues beyond nuclear proliferation. In addition to being an election year in the U.S., this will need to consider the unpredictability of an Iranian regime dealing with succession, elections and aging simultaneously.

Amb. Silliman recounted how Gen. Soleimani successfully created security structures in Iraq that mirrored those in Iran over the past 15 years. And while the rise of ISIS led to the tacit alignment of U.S. forces with these security structures, they retain the capability to sow disruption in Iraq. Their disruptive potential makes Iraq a likely target for Iranian retaliation in the short-term, particularly as there is some popular support for the Iranian position there. And while Amb. Silliman agrees about a return to the status quo ante, he emphasized how little success Iran has had over the past year and a half responding to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Iran’s efforts to work with the Europeans, divide the U.S. and Europeans, attack the interests of U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and finally the December 2019 attacks on the Green Zone and military bases all have failed to achieve sanctions relief.

Ms. Karam highlighted just how important Gen. Soleimani was to Iran’s military, political and intelligence operations, with no parallel in the West. She also noted how his killing has caused Iran-backed militias in the region to “hunker down” and reassess the security landscape. Looking specifically at Lebanon and Iran-backed Hezbollah, she observes a very skillful response: exploiting Gen. Soleimani’s death to rally the base through media and behind the scenes images of Gen. Soleimani and Hezbollah leaders; Hezbollah boosting their security inside Lebanon to fill intelligence gaps; and politically, a trend in Lebanon (and Iraq) towards “one color” government formation with Iran-backed factions forming their own governments with immediate allies rather than through power-sharing arrangements. More broadly there is also anxiety in the region about the security situation if the U.S. leaves Iraq and an increase in harassment of activists and journalists by Iran-backed militias.

Amb. Limbert believes that Iranians deserve better than what they have with the current regime. Yet so much seems to never change: the intractable relationship with the U.S.; Iran’s isolation in the region, not being Sunni, Arab or Turkish; and the feeling in Iran of being a “besieged fortress” that needs to protect against the non-Persian speaking periphery that can be pierced at any time. Given these realities and perceptions, Amb. Limbert thinks it makes sense that Iran would meddle in Iraq and other areas on its periphery and the U.S. public should be weary of oft-repeated references to Iran’s “malign behavior” or “threatening actions”. Given this static situation, Amb. Limbert sees a general continuation of the current U.S. – Iranian relationship, despite recent escalations, and hopes that the medium to long-term will provide openings to imagine a better one.

Event Speakers

Dr. Suzanne Maloney

Deputy Director for Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative, The Brookings Institution


Amb. (ret.) Douglas A. Silliman

President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Former Ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait 


Ms. Joyce Karam

Washington Correspondent, The National (UAE)

Adjunct Professor, George Washington University


 Amb. (ret.) John Limbert

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran

Former Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top