Iranians in Tehran take part in an anti-U.S. rally on Saturday to protest the killing of military commander Qasem Soleimani (seen here on the banner) and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
In his remarks following Friday’s drone strike that killed Iranian special operations commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, President Donald Trump was keen to brush off critics who said this provocative attack risked an all-out war with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said. “We did not take action to start a war.”
On one hand, from the president’s perspective, this statement was entirely honest: Trump does not personally want to go to war with Iran. He has been uncharacteristically consistent in his position that launching new, open-ended military adventures in the Middle East would be strategically and politically stupid for his government.
Yet in terms of actions having logical and necessary consequences, his statement was also manifestly false. The Trump administration claimed the right to assassinate Soleimani (along with Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah) via unilateral executive action and without consulting Congress because Soleimani was planning imminent attacks that would kill dozens or hundreds of U.S. citizens, and also because both men had long been designated terrorists by the United States. The legal and strategic reasoning here is debatable: Killing Soleimani for masterminding (not executing) an “imminent” attack strains the definition of self-defense as a legal justification, and will not necessarily prevent Iran from carrying out whatever operation he was planning.
The bigger problem, however, is that unlike Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, these designated terrorists were also officials in the governments of sovereign states. Muhandis was the deputy chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-sponsored coalition of Iraqi paramilitary groups. Soleimani, of course, was the widely feared, loathed, and/or respected leader of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for its clandestine and extraterritorial military operations. As severalcommentators have noted, Soleimani was such a pivotal figure in Iran’s military and foreign policy decision-making that killing him was akin to if the Iranians had simultaneously wiped out David Petraeus, Jim Mattis, and every other top U.S. general at the height of the Iraq War. If that’s not an act of war, what is?
One reason for the Trump administration’s apparent strategic incoherence vis-à-vis Iran is that while Trump himself does not want war, many of his key advisors either openly endorse it or are much more sanguine about it than he is. While arch-neocon and Iran hawk John Bolton is no longer whispering in the president’s ear, his successor as national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, belongs to the same school of thought. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, is an advocate of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran into a humiliating new disarmament deal through sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has openly advocated bombing Iran in the past and has designed a negotiation strategy for that new deal based on holding Iran to conditions it cannot possibly accept.
In other words, while Trump may be genuinely dovish on Iran, a number of powerful operators within the administration and the broader right-wing foreign policy establishment believe war with Iran would be quick, easy, and lead to a positive outcome. These include many of the same people who predicted that the Iraq War would be a triumphant cakewalk in 2003, who are for some baffling reason still afforded the opportunity to publish their opinions in the New York Times. Bolton is not alone in wishfully thinking that Soleimani’s death will be “the first step to regime change in Tehran,” perhaps via a popular uprising of Iranians against the Islamic Republic — or perhaps via a series of escalatory measures culminating in U.S. airstrikes and/or ground troops on Iranian soil.
Sure enough, Iran’s leadership immediately vowed to take revenge on the U.S. for the assassination, a threat the Trump administration is taking seriously enough to order all U.S. citizens to evacuate from Iraq and deploy an additional 3,500 soldiers to the Middle East. At the same time, Trump does not appear to have thought through the potential Iranian response before making the decision to take out Soleimani, perhaps because his advisers assured him that Iran lacked the willingness or the capacity to mount a meaningful reprisal.
Iran has a number of potential avenues for retaliation, including attacks on the global oil supply chain, cyberattacks, assaults on U.S. military and diplomatic outposts throughout the Middle East, ramped-up proxy attacks on U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, or even the kidnapping and execution of U.S. citizens. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is surely under great pressure to exact revenge, but the nature of that pressure is more ideological than strategic. While Soleimani was indispensable to Iran’s petty empire in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the region, he is not entirely irreplaceable. His longtime deputy Esmail Ghaani, who has already succeeded him as head of the Quds Force, may not match Soleimani’s leadership abilities, but will still be able to carry out Iran’s regional agenda.
In other words, while Soleimani’s death is a major blow to Iran’s strategic planning capabilities, it does not eliminate them entirely and does not justify escalating to all-out war with the United States. Khamenei is a zealot, but he is neither stupid nor insane: He knows that direct confrontation with the U.S. would be costly and damaging to us, but completely disastrous for his country and regime. The Iranian public, including regime supporters and dissidents alike, has little to no interest in being bombed or invaded by the Americans, which would result in massive casualties, economic devastation, and perhaps a generation of instability not unlike what we unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is entirely likely, therefore, that Soleimani’s assassination won’t lead to a full-scale war or even to a significant change in the state of the broader Mideast conflict. Khamenei will need to do something that can be plausibly spun as vengeance for domestic propaganda purposes, but probably still wants to avoid anything drastic enough to serve as a pretext for an American attack. As Elizabeth Tsurkov puts it at the Forward: “Iran will likely seek a way to avenge Soleimani’s killing in a manner [that] won’t escalate tensions further and trigger a war, which Iranian leaders, for all their bluster, surely know they will lose.” While it is probably wishful thinking to suggest that this assassination paves the way toward a peaceful resolution of the standoff between Washington and Tehran, it is somewhat alarmist to assume that it will necessarily escalate our decades-long cold war into a hot war that neither country actually wants to fight.
That certainly remains a risk, especially given the impulsive and reactive decision-making process within the Trump administration. It is worth remembering, however, that Trump has been the main instigator of the escalating tensions with Iran over the past two years, withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimplementing sanctions in an effort to crush Iran economically and force its capitulation. Khamenei is, to borrow one of the president’s favorite phrases, “no angel,” but from his perspective, Iran is defending against American aggression and getting too little credit for its role in fighting the Islamic State. If things do spiral into a full-on shooting war, it likely won’t be because of an intentional provocation from Tehran, but rather because Trump makes some fatal error or succumbs to the influence of the Iran-hawk chorus.
Still, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any blowback. We will soon find out whether Trump’s decision has its intended effect of deterrence, or whether Iran will respond by directing its regional proxies to step up the violence. In the meantime, Iran may be able to use this as a means to shift the target of Iraqi public discontent from Iranian meddling to American imperialism. Tehran will almost certainly seek to capitalize on Iraqi outrage over the incident to push for the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq — a move Baghdad is seriously considering in response to what it considers a major violation of its territorial sovereignty.
Whether or not the Iraqi government decides to make that request (and whether or not the Trump administration heeds it), American-Iraqi military cooperation is unlikely to proceed as usual after this incident. Ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq, or even just refocusing it to defend against Iranian proxies, will likely hinder the campaign to clear out the remnants of the Islamic State in that country. Our uncomfortable, undeclared alliance with Iran-backed militias against that group has come to an end; if Baghdad cuts us out entirely, it will become very difficult for the U.S. to lead that fight and steer Iraq away from Iranian suzerainty.
The signature success of America’s enemies in the 21st century so far has been in drawing us into military quagmires that are impossible to win. A war in Iran would be another. At three times the size and more than twice the population of Iraq, it would be that much more expensive and dangerous to occupy. Yet it would be suicide for the Iranian regime to draw us into such a war. Besides, when it comes to bogging down the U.S., they already have plenty to work with in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Whatever happens next will probably happen there, with predictably grave consequences for the people caught in the middle.