The views expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.
The strategic implications from President Donald Trump’s tactical decision to kill General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will only become manifestly clear with the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight. Immediate speculation in the Twitter-verse ranges from genuine fears of all-out regional war, to status quo expectations that Iranian retaliation will be limited to simply continuing the ongoing tit-for-tat cycle of mutual U.S.-Iran reprisals, to the wildly hopeful forecast that such attacks represent the “first step to regime change in Tehran.”
Of course, the ultimate outcomes from these recent U.S. strikes are unpredictable and dependent on the actions, reactions, and interactions of an innumerable set of decisions yet to be made by a complex web of international, regional, and local state and non-state actors. Nonetheless, in these admittedly early hours with limited foresight, it’s hard not to anticipate that the recent American military strikes in Iraq targeting Soleimani—however well justified and emotionally satisfying—could also mark the end of America’s dominant position in the Middle East.
U.S.-Iran Competition for Regional Influence Moves to Direct Military Confrontation
Iranian leaders have been contesting the American presence in the region since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought a succession of religious leaders to power in Tehran. More recently, Iranian leaders have sought to impose concrete costs on the U.S. and its allies in response to the crushing economic sanctions imposed as part of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy.
Iran has deliberately and provocatively probed and pushed to find the limits of American restraint and redlines. In May and June 2019, Iran apparently launched multipleattacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf after threatening to close the Persian Gulf if Iran would not be allowed to export its oil. Later in June, Iran deliberately targeted and shot down an unmanned and unarmed U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone operating in the Gulf. In September, Iran was likely responsible for a coordinated drone attack that damaged two key Saudi facilities that resulted in suspending more than half of the Kingdom’s daily production of oil.
The U.S. response to these provocations was restrained and limited primarily to cyberattacks on Iranian intelligence and communication networks and several deployments of additional U.S. troops, aircraft, and a carrier strike group as defensive and deterrent measures.
However, on December 28, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia known as Kata’ib Hezbollah (Brigades of the Party of God) launched a missile attack on a base near Kirkuk, Iraq, killing one U.S. civilian contractor and wounding several Iraqi personnel. This attack was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back resulting in kinetic U.S. responses that moved long-standing U.S.-Iranian competition to one of open and direct military confrontation.
The initial American volley in this exchange was to launch retaliatory airstrikes targeting five facilities in Syria and Iraq tied to Kata’ib Hezbollah killing at least 25 people. However, in a dramatic escalation, President Trump ordered strikes directly targeting and killing both Soleimani and the deputy head of Iraq’s powerful Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—forces that include many elements closely aligned with and backed by Iran.
The American strikes are being justified as defensive and preventative by the White House and senior administration officials. They assert that these two Iranian and Iraqi officials were in the process of coordinating imminent attacks on U.S. personnel in the region and have in any event been directly or indirectly responsible for many previous attacks killing Americans in Iraq and elsewhere.
There could be little doubt that Iran’s escalating provocations would eventually be met with force. Moreover, many in the region and in the United States are celebrating this more muscular American response. Soleimani was after all a notorious senior Iranian military figure who planned and coordinated widespread death and destruction throughout the Middle East.
Placing America’s Position in the Region at Risk
There is a compelling case to be made that that these American strikes were an essential, measured, and justified tactical action required to deter more aggressive Iranian actions. Moreover, close observers of Iran are asserting that the death of Iran’s most prominent military leader will deal a severe blow to Iran’s strategy leveraging its expansive global network of proxies, militias, and allies. Finally, other analysts like Ray Takeyh argue that this U.S. action will be enough to compel the clerical regime in Tehran to “retreat in face of American determination.” Nonetheless, these tactical strikes—however well calibrated, justified, or considered—could nonetheless represent a major strategic setback for America’s position in the region.
To be sure, these recent U.S. strikes alone will not be the sole reason for America’s relative decline in the Middle East. They might, however, hasten the collapse of an already eroding U.S. position damaged by 19 years of costly and indecisive post-9/11 wars and erratic U.S. policymaking.
Inconclusive and exhausting U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) were early contributors to doubts about America’s ability to create better futures for an already troubled region. America’s half-hearted intervention and then-abandonment of Libya as civil war erupted in the predictable aftermath of Muammar Gaddafii’s death (2011) sowed further doubts about both the wisdom and capacity of American leadership.
The continued expansion of Islamic terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their off-shoots, despite an unrelenting U.S.-led Global War on Terror further signaled the limits of what the American military might accomplish. An inability to put an end to the disastrous civil wars in Syria and Yemen were demonstrable evidence of the limits of American power to curb, let alone prevent, the emergence of even the worst possible outcomes. Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from a functional international agreement that effectively constrained Iran’s nuclear program and the frequent recourse to the imposition of economic sanctions against allies and enemies alike showed just how willing America was to go it alone in an “America First” strategy. More recently, the decision to proceed with the most recent U.S. strikes inside Iraq despite opposition from Iraq’s political leadership merely confirmed for many that American leaders were simply not serious about weighing the interests of partners when making critical decisions.
Yet, for all these obvious missteps, there were also developments that nonetheless offered opportunities for the U.S. to advance its larger strategic goals and interests in the Middle East. In particular, late 2019 saw the emergence of positive trends suggesting that Arabs themselves had tired of Iran’s meddling and thus might be disposed to play a more helpful role in accomplishing the important American objective of curbing what U.S. officials derisively refer to as Iran’s malign influence in the region. Protesters in both Lebanon and Iraq have recently poured into the streets by the tens of thousands to condemn these Iranian-backed governments and demand better governance, economic prosperity, and an end to pervasive corruption and brutal repression. Even more significantly, widespread protests—initially sparked by economic grievances, but also uncharacteristically critical of Iran’s adventurist foreign policy in Syria—swept through Iran itself. Given their breadth, scope, and scale, these recent protests have the potential to strike at the very “heart of the regime’s revolutionary legitimacy” according to the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney.
Unfortunately, this latest U.S. retaliation is quite likely to ease, if not erase, this building pressure on Iran and could set the stage for a forced American military withdrawal from both Iraq and Syria—sacrificing a major source of America’s regional leverage and influence. Iraq’s Prime Minister and President have condemned these U.S. strikes as unacceptable violations of Iraq’s sovereignty as they place Iraq in the middle of a dangerous U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. Moreover, in a troubling sign, the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution on Sunday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the country that if implemented would imperil the fight against ISIS and represent a significant setback for America’s position in the region.
Additionally, the relative isolation of U.S. troops in Syria means that they too will be dangerously exposed to retaliation by any number of Iranian-backed militias operating in that country. This potential exposure to Iranian attack in Syria could be enough to convince President Trump to finally make good on his repeated promises to complete a full U.S. withdrawal. Lastly, Soleimani consistently polled as the single most popular figure in Iran, and his death will likely unite nationalist Iranians and hardliners alike at the very time the regime confronted genuine grass-roots pressure for change. The increased influence of these hardliners in Tehran is quite likely to lead to even greater repression in Iran while virtually eliminating any realistic prospect of renewed negotiations over its nuclear program or other troublesome behavior in the region.
A forced U.S. military withdrawal under these conditions would deliver a serious body blow to the world’s confidence in American leadership. It risks permanently weakening America’s position in the region and will endanger much-needed regional cooperation in the counterterrorism fight. Moreover, as the September strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure made abundantly clear, our regional allies too are extremely vulnerable to Iranian retaliation; an American withdrawal would leave them dangerously exposed.
Strategy often involves weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of action and inaction. In this case, U.S. strikes directly targeting Iranian assets could yield tactical short-term benefits that include disruption of planned attacks on American interests and deterring Iran’s leadership from taking even more aggressive action. However, this optimistic scenario is far from guaranteed. It is just as likely, if not more, that this action will compel Iranian retaliation locking both Iran and the U.S. in an escalating confrontation that risks a broader regional confrontation, solidifies hardliners in Tehran, and inflicts a serious blow to America’s already weakening position in the Middle East.
The year ahead will tell if these hoped for short-term benefits ultimately outweigh these longer-term strategic risks.