Iranian protesters burning an American flag. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The United States rang in 2020 with a precision drone strike, killing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Commander Qasem Soleimani. Maximum pressure has given way to lethal force, and the region anxiously awaits new developments. The question is whether this move by the Trump Administration will precipitate open warfare between the U.S. and Iran. To debate these two possibilities, GSSR has brought in Benjamin Niehoff, a guest analyst and US Army Psychological Warfare Officer, and Paul Kearney, the GSSR Associate Editor for the Middle East.
Nothing Significant to Report
The killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani is unlikely to lead to an outbreak of conventional war between the United States and Iran. First, the killing of a military official is hardly a new phenomenon, as the history of violent covert actions between the two countries stretches back to the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Additionally, the massive disparity between Iranian and US conventional forces makes direct military action an untenable option for Iran, especially given the lack of support for such action from Russia and China. Finally, Iran’s ongoing civil unrest and economic hardships make it far more likely that Tehran will utilize proxy networks to exact revenge for Soleimani’s death rather than seek a direct military confrontation with the U.S.
The adversarial nature of US-Iranian relations stems from the seizure of the American Embassy and the subsequent hostage crisis during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Hostilities continued through the 1980s, most notably with the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah proxies and the group kidnapping and murder of Beirut CIA station chief William Buckley. More recently, Iranian sponsored Shia militias, trained and equipped by Iranian Quds Forces, wounded or killed 608 US military personnel deployed to Iraq between 2003-2011.
As the Quds Force commander from 1998 until his death on January 2nd, Soleimani was directly involved with these attacks on US personnel. His reputation as a covert operations planner and facilitator spread across the region, and he was described by a former CIA officer as “…the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.” At the time of his death, Soleimani was meeting with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the group responsible for the December 31st attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. Soleimani, acting as a covert operative, supported a non-state actor in its efforts to conduct attacks on American military and diplomatic personnel abroad. Additionally, he did so in a country with limited capacity or willingness to apprehend him. This made Soleimani eligible for targeting under the Targeted Killing Program enacted by the Obama administration and still in force under the current administration. Under this program, targeting Soleimani was a justifiable action of self-defense. Nevertheless, this strike does represent a transition in the nature of US-Iranian hostilities: a shift away from the use of proxies in favor of direct action.
Despite this shift, Iran is unlikely to employ conventional military forces to directly attack the U.S. or its allies in the region. Iran knows that its military stands little chance of success in a high intensity conflict with the U.S. Instead, Iran seeks to mitigate its conventional inferiority by employing numerous regional proxy forces and by seeking partnership with American near-peer competitors, such as Russia and China. Indeed, the Islamic Republic recently engaged in naval exercises with Russia and China, with the stated goal being “stabilizing security” in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. While both Russia and China condemned the death of Soleimani, they are unlikely to risk their hard-won influence in the region. Russia’s military involvement in Syria since 2015 focused on establishing itself as a regional power broker. Similarly, China, via its Belt and Road Initiative, seeks increased regional prominence and greater access to Middle Eastern oil reserves. Neither country wants to risk direct conflict with the U.S. and will, therefore, likely continue to publicly condemn the attack while privately urging the use of restraint.
Finally, Iran is unlikely to engage in a conventional conflict with the U.S. due to the absence of popular support for such a war among its population. Large public protests have been spreading across Iran since November 2019. Up to 450 protestors are believed dead and another 7,000 imprisoned. This civil unrest, largely a result of economic crisis stemming from sanctions imposed on the regime, suggests the population of Iran is unlikely to support a large-scale conflict with a military power such as the U.S. This is especially true in light of the high casualties suffered by Iraq during the U.S.-led invasions in 1991 and 2003. If Iranian forces suffered similar rates of attrition, and there is good reason to believe they would, war with the U.S. would likely necessitate the introduction of politically unpopular conscription policies. In light of these factors, Iran is more likely to pursue asymmetric retaliation through its proxies, as it has for the past 40 years, rather than through direct military action.
Put on Your Boots and Parachutes–War is Coming
A brigade of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division lifted off from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in route to the Middle East. Initially part of the response to Iranian-backed militias’ attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, now these paratroopers might face a wider mission. The targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani represents a sudden and risky escalation in the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. This campaign is ultimately destined to spiral toward ever more significant conflict because domestic political pressures deny either side the ability to step back, neither side has an acceptable path to peace, and miscalculations are seemingly unavoidable. While Iran will begin its retaliation with proxies, these actions will spiral into larger conflict.
The American “maximum pressure” campaign leaves Iran pressed for options and creates a spiral model of escalation with no acceptable off-ramps. While the targeted killing of Soleimani has spurred renewed interest in the Iranian-US conflict, tensions have been ongoing throughout the last few decades – most notably since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. While the JCPOA aimed to prevent Iranian nuclear development through a treaty regime, “maximum pressure” seeks to compel Iran… to do something, but that something is unclear. This places Iran in an untenable position because compellence is more difficult to obtain than deterrence. If deterrence is successful, an adversary state can simply claim that it really did not want to do whatever they were deterred from doing. This allows the country to save face and avoid appearing weak to foreign and domestic audiences. Compellence is inherently more difficult because, by performing the compelled act, the adversary’s capitulation is public. Maximum pressure seeks to compel Iran to take public steps away from their proxies, recall Quds Force units, and cower before American threats. Iran is unlikely to do any of this. Iranian leaders feel they must respond to Soleimani’s killing or risk appearing weak, thereby exacerbating internal dissent. Tehran’s response is likely to be stronger than a proxy response, and Iran is broadcasting as much. The top military advisor to the Ayotollah, Major General Hossein Dehghan, told news reporters that retaliation would come from the military itself, not proxies or cutouts. Iran could also choose to strike at US civilian populations with a cyber-attack. Iranian cyber capabilities are among the most advanced in the world and could be used against US or allied targets.
The Trump Administration has no realistic exit ramps on the road to open warfare either. President Trump has built his entire Iranian policy around maximum pressure and credible threats. While publicly declaring his desire for peace, President Trump quickly mentioned that the U.S. already has “targets picked out” to respond to any Iranian retaliation. If President Trump does not respond to Iranian retaliation, especially given these recent remarks, he risks losing face to domestic audiences in the coming election. More importantly, the Iranians will perceive that they have escalation dominance and the U.S. does not have the wherewithal for war. An emboldened Iran would be a further menace in the region and threaten traditional rivals and enemies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. American responses to Iranian attacks will escalate the conflict ever closer to open warfare. Without a rung in the escalation ladder where either side feels like they can disengage or de-escalate without unacceptable consequences, this spiral will build until Iran’s proxies or the Iranians themselves cross a line–clearly set out or not—that President Trump will feel he can only respond to with outright retaliatory force.
This scenario does not rule out other actors in the region attempting to “wag the dog.” Any number of scenarios exist where Iran’s regional rivals may hope to gain an advantage by inciting conflict. Saudi Arabia may seek to provoke a conflict in the hopes an Iran weakened by the United States could not challenge Riyadh’s bid for regional hegemony. Israel, hoping to weaken the regime that backs anti-Israeli fighters, could instigate further escalation. Other actors like Russia would greatly benefit by a United States focused on the Middle East while it seeks to consolidate gains in eastern Ukraine. Each of these countries, and others, have at least some incentive to fuel escalation.
With tensions running high, miscalculations of adversary intentions become increasingly likely. Ironically, it appears Qasem Soleimani was a key figure preventing tragic miscalculations. Soleimani’s deft hand was likely the reason that Iranian-back militias did not cross a threshold to calcify American opposition. Even in the recent attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad, the militias conspicuously stopped at the reception building, choosing not to test the US Marines and contracted guard forces. With a less experienced hand at the helm, it is only a matter of time before a proxy oversteps their charge with disastrous consequences. The events of the past few days have caused observers to question the United States’s ability to coherently signal actors in the region. Presidential and Congressional bickering, mishandled memoranda, and hurled insults on Twitter are open to any manner of misinterpretation. In a high-stakes competition, Iranian leaders are likely to believe the most bellicose statements because they have seen the US President order the targeted killing of Soleimani and cannot assume President Trump is constrained in any significant way by traditional norms. This leaves a huge opportunity for accidental escalation and unintended consequences.
Though frightening to consider, unless internal conditions within either the Trump Administration or the Islamic Republic change considerably, the U.S. and Iran appear fully entrapped in a spiral towards open, possibly unrestricted conflict. It is now only a matter of time until President Trump flips on the green light and those paratroopers jump into action.
*The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.
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