The strategic consequences of Soleimani’s death

Written 11 January 2020

Persian patience and memory is renowned worldwide. It has been something that Israelis, Greeks, and Romans learned from and came to admire. Indeed, the Persian nation has existed for 2,500 years and this is something modern Persians are still very proud of. None of the nations who have conquered Persia exist today with the same power and renown they once had: the Greeks are reduced to a small territory on the Balkan Peninsula and their presence in the East is nonexistent; the Arabs are split up among various nations who are at intermittently at war with each other; the Mongols are reduced to a nation of barely three million.

The modern nation of Iran has taken on the mantle of ancient Persian empires, effectively controlling or having influence over a swathe of territory not too dissimilar from the Sassanid Empire’s. And they look back at their history with pride, oftentimes viewing their neighbors with contempt and even ridicule. It is this nation that the United States is currently dealing with. It should therefore expect to deal with a nation that possesses a long memory and patience to deal with foreign struggles.

It is in the context that I want to assess Trump’s decision to strike Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. I think Trump made a rational and calculated decision when he ordered the strike. Unlike some others, I do not think it was a rash decision made by a man who is likely facing senility. And it was something that was praised among some strategic circles, most notably with David Petraeus calling it a move that reasserted our “deterrence” capability in the region. I think this was Trump’s end goal, and something that can be verified by his tepid response to Iranian bombing of our facilities in Erbil and al-Asad AFB.

Trump correctly saw that Iran was playing a game of brinkmanship with the United States. They steadily increased the impact of their attacks on US and partner nation assets. While initially striking commercial ships with small arms in the Persian Gulf, they escalated to seizing tankers, launching limited strikes on US facilities in Iraq, and eventually launching cruise missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities. This was done by Iran as an attempt to steadily increase pressure on the US and its allies for them to come to the negotiating table. This campaign proved to have some successes (as I predicted in my previous article.) Although Iran was able to drive a wedge into the administration which ultimately led to the resignation of John Bolton, Trump had not yet come to the negotiation table.

The December strikes on a US facility that killed a contractor came with a slightly different set of calculations. The attack was carried out in the context of protests in both Iraq and Iran where demonstrators were largely focused on the excesses of the Iranian government. The attack was thus done to force and American overreaction that would turn attention away from Iran. This was exactly what happened when five Kataib Hezbollah sites were struck by US forces. A further round of escalation was done after the US embassy compound attack when Qasem Soleimani was killed.

The Iranians got what they wanted. The Iraqi parliament voted to expel US forces and protesters’ attentions had turned away from Iran towards the US, with a previously largely unseen anti-American flavor being added to the protests. But it came at a great cost. They lost one of the regime’s most valuable commanders whose loss will be difficult to replace. It humiliated the Iranians who were left with few options to retaliate besides a limited strike like they carried out with missiles on US bases on 8 January. Iranian power had been sullied, and the miscalculated how far Trump would go.

And this is exactly what Trump had in mind. By carrying out the strike against QS, he ramped up the escalatory chain to a degree that he knew the Iranians could not take. He demonstrated to the Iranians that he was willing to go much farther than they were. The killing of US citizens is unforgivable and the United States is willing to take extreme measures to rectify it. He had, in effect, re-established deterrence. It was a rational, calculated approach that seems to have worked. However, I believe Trump miscalculated.

By showing how far he was willing to go, he demonstrated to the Iranians their own relative weakness. It is important to understand why Iran had a nuclear weapons program to begin with, something that I do not believe Trump took into account. The nuclear program was simply a diplomatic bargaining chip that the Iranians used to gain leverage with the US and its allies in the region. It was able to gain concessions in 2015 when sanctions were lifted and Iran’s economy was taken out from the thumb it had been under. It was going to become a member of the international community instead of the rogue pariah state it had come to be seen as under the Bush administration. It had used the nuclear option with the belief that the US would not make a serious attempt at “regime change” and instead seek a negotiation.

Soleimani’s death has demonstrated to the Iranians that Trump is not reliable. He is unpredictable and willing to take escalotory measures that previous administrations did not take. The rational calculus has changed. The pressure campaign they brought to bear is likely not to continue anymore, simply because they cannot anticipate how Trump will react. Furthermore, it is highly likely that Trump will continue to try to overthrow the regime through covert means. The nuclear option it had once used to bring the US to the table is now going to be used to ensure the survival of the regime. At this point, it is highly likely that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons as it is the most certain way that it can ensure safety from major hostile actions from adversarial nations. The Soleimani strike demonstrated that the US is willing to kill foreign officials, something that established US deterrence in the region. However, the Iranians have little now but to ensure their own deterrence, and the only surefire way to do that is through nuclear weapons.

The strikes on al-Asad and Erbil by Iran were not just symbolic strikes to show retaliation for Soleimani’s death. They also send a very clear message. “We have the missiles, and they are very precise, more precise than you probably expected. You do not want to see nuclear warheads on them.” While Iran does not currently possess ICBMs, it is not outside the realm of possibility that they are now looking to develop them. Trump has promised he will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. I do not expect that Iran at this point will be clear or obvious about their program, they will be extremely secretive. Furthermore, they may not even do tests anytime soon. Indeed, they may even follow a policy of “strategic ambiguity” like Israel does. But the era of the “nuclear bargaining chip” is now over and now we are in the era of “nuclear weapons.”

Trump’s greatest weakness is not his military, or any of his strategic options in the Middle East. It is here, at home. He is going to be facing elections in November which he may not win. Furthermore, he is facing an impeachment trial which is hampering the country’s ability to govern. It would be a very sweet form of revenge for the Iranians to ensure his loss and humiliation before the end of the year. As I said when I began, the Iranians have a very long memory. Americans don’t. It’s likely most Americans already forgot about Soleimani. I do not know if the Iranians will strike again, and I do not know how, but I would be wary of a potential “October Surprise” that will shock the American public. It is here where we as a nation are weakest, and it is here that we could see the most striking example of long-term Iranian strategic thinking.

The consequences of such a possible strike are difficult to assess. But the Islamic Republic is facing challenges it has not yet faced and it is going to be making very difficult decisions that may lead to global consequences. But the Iranian nation has faced much more difficult scenarios in the past which they manages to weather. I suspect they will do this again.