The death of Qassem Soleimani is a sobering blow for the Iranian regime. Soleimani embodied everything the regime wanted to project about itself—influence, ruthlessness, agility, confidence. He kept Iran’s enemies awake at night, and his theocratic masters sleeping soundly in a world of real and imagined threats at home and abroad.
For years, Tehran’s leadership talked fatalistically about Soleimani as a “living martyr,” but they surely did not anticipate President Trump’s audacious targeted killing. Now the Iranians will seek vengeance—methodical, cold-blooded, and nasty. They will look to avoid an all-out war with the United States they cannot win. But they will also look to turn a tactical blow into a strategic boon.
Unlike the Trump administration, which cannot reconcile its desire to get tough on Iran with its desire to leave the region altogether, the Iranian regime has a strategy, tethered to the realities, dysfunctions, and limits of the Middle East. Its tactics are often ugly, its capacity for misreading the terrain is sometimes self-defeating, and the pain and stupidities it inflicts on so many across the region, let alone its own people, can be horrific. But it does connect its means to its desired ends: keeping the clerics in power, keeping its imperial project in the region alive, and keeping sworn enemies, including America, off balance and out of its neighborhood.
No one really knows what comes next, not even the protagonists themselves. But as the dust settles, the collateral damage from the strike on Qassem Soleimani will likely be greater than the Trump administration bargained for. Indeed, the strike already appears to be feeding the gnarled ambitions of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, by producing a more unified regime with a tighter grip at home; an even more precarious American military position in Iraq and Syria, with the Iraqi parliament now calling for U.S. withdrawal; and the death of the Iranian nuclear deal and the whole notion of diplomacy with the Great Satan. All of this would cost the United States far more than Soleimani’s assassination cost Iran. In his death, Soleimani may exact his own final act of revenge against the United States.
One of the iron laws of foreign policy is that just because you can do something, or just because it’s morally defensible, doesn’t make it a smart thing to do. Both of President Trump’s predecessors adhered to that law when it came to the question of whether to go after Qassem Soleimani. Trump, however, is enamored with actions that his predecessors avoided, and stubbornly convinced that he can get his way with the unilateral application of American power.
For Iran’s supreme leader, Soleimani’s assassination was both a personal wound and an affirmation of his darkly suspicious world view. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal last year had already reconfirmed his deep skepticism about the wisdom of negotiating with the Americans. The elimination of Soleimani may give pause to Khamenei and the hard men around him about the wisdom of frontal assaults on U.S. personnel, but in other ways it returns them to a world in which they’re far more comfortable. It’s a world with a clear enemy at the gate, a mortal threat that makes it easier to control domestic pressures for reform and dismiss international pressure for diplomacy. And it’s a world in which Iran has a wide array of lethal tools and loyal proxies, and a well-practiced ability to manipulate a neighborhood it knows far better than Americans do.
Strategically, the Iranian leadership will see no shortage of opportunities.
At home, it will use the action against Soleimani to change the channel, seeking to divert the popular frustrations which only a short time ago deeply unnerved the regime. Reformism was already a spent force in Iranian politics. Parliamentary elections next month will bury it—hardening the grip of reactionaries, and all but ensuring the rise of their choices for the next president and eventually the next supreme leader.
Already tiptoeing away from compliance with the nuclear agreement, the regime will now feel obliged to take significant leaps, including the resumption of higher levels of uranium enrichment. Other signatories can no longer make a credible case that they can get Trump back to the negotiating table or deliver Iran the promised economic benefits. The only question about the nuclear deal now is the manner and pace of its expiration. With the treacherous genie of Iran’s nuclear program heading out of the bottle, a whole series of dilemmas will reemerge, from the dangers of military preemption to the risks of a regional nuclear arms race.
The wider regional consequences could be equally negative for American interests—particularly in Iraq. For Tehran, ironically, the U.S. assassination of Soleimani offers a convenient escape from the anti-Iranian anger that Soleimani’s own policies had stirred up. Barely a month ago, the Iranian consulate in Najaf was torched by an Iraqi Shia mob accusing Iran of violating Iraqi sovereignty; now the Americans are a more urgent target for that same charge. Tehran will do everything in its power to make America’s military presence in Iraq operationally and politically unsustainable. It will stoke Iraqi emotions and push a very fragile Iraqi government to demand our withdrawal, and an angered Shia clerical establishment to do the same—tempting an American president who doesn’t really want to be there in the first place. In the meantime, Iranian proxies will continue to try to humiliate Americans in Iraq, and look for opportunities to threaten U.S. facilities.
Even short of a withdrawal, pressure to constrain the U.S. military in Iraq will have serious effects on a campaign against ISIS that is far from over. Trump has made no secret of his inclination to pull remaining American forces out of Syria, and the Iranians will turn up the heat to try to encourage that instinct. Mounting protests in Lebanon against Iran and Hezbollah will at least temporarily recede, deferring the hopes of Lebanese whose non-violent, cross-sectarian demonstrations held the promise of a new political era in that embattled country.
In the Gulf, our partners are losing their enthusiasm for an American confrontation with Iran. They are spooked by Trump’s oscillation between non-reaction and extreme reaction and the Iranians’ demonstrated will and capacity to hit them where it hurts most. The Iranians could eventually stage further attacks on Saudi oil facilities or Gulf shipping, as a reminder that neither the Gulf Arabs nor the global economy will escape the consequences of conflict between Tehran and Washington.
As we’ve argued before, we’re at this dangerous juncture because of Trump’s foolish decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, his through-the-looking-glass conception of coercive diplomacy, and his willing hardline enablers in Tehran. When the deal was in place, Iran remained an adversary—but U.S. unmanned aircraft weren’t being shot down by Iran in international waters, Gulf shipping and infrastructure weren’t being hit by Iranian mines and missiles, and U.S. personnel weren’t being targeted by Shia militias in Iraq. Abandoning the nuclear agreement, on our own and with no evidence of Iranian cheating, started a predictable cycle of escalation and brinksmanship. It is a cycle which Trump has accelerated with muscular bluster and “maximum pressure,” unconnected to realistic aims or careful foresight.
The Trump administration is not the first U.S. administration to engage in magical thinking in the Middle East, but the contradictions in its approach have set a new standard. The president came into office promising to undermine Iran’s regional reach and secure a “better deal” on its nuclear program—all while drawing down America’s military presence in the region and rejecting credible diplomacy.
At the beginning of 2020, a dispassionate reckoning would conclude that the United States is not only farther from those goals than it was three years ago, but more exposed to the unpredictable risks of escalating conflict with Iran, and the vast insecurities of the Middle East, the original land of unintended consequences. The wisdom of particular tactics, including the killing of Qassem Soleimani, is best judged by the strategic results they produce. America is stumbling into a tragedy of its own making. And the Iranian regime is poised to once again reap the rewards, turning Soleimani’s loss into a long-term gain.