The confrontation between the United States and Iran presents itself as a study in escalation. Both countries are trapped in a pattern of action and reaction far removed from the issues that define the current state of affairs in the Middle East. According to this narrative, a “tat” is bound to be promptly followed by a “tit”, each strike more severe than the one before. The expectation is now one of punch and counterpunch, eventually leading to all-out war unless one side accepts a loss of face and withdraws.
For both the US and Iran, war is an absurd proposition – there are limits to the damage that Iran can inflict on the US, and the US could not cope with an occupation of Iran. But the respective foreign policy regimes in Washington and Tehran, combined with the heightened invectives of their respective leaderships, means that any war would be the result of pride, detached from strategic calculus, and a fear of weakness taking precedence over the pursuit of interests.
The fear of being perceived as weak has become a central preoccupation for the White House. Yet while Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is a cascade of military threats and hard talk, in practice he has usually shown restraint. Despite the Iranians shooting down an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz in June 2019, and allegedly attacking a Saudi Aramco oil facility later that year, Trump refused to authorise retaliatory airstrikes. So tepid was his response that Tehran was emboldened – they saw Trump as something of a paper tiger, big on boasts but short on action.
This perception may help explain why Iran underestimated the risks associated with the latest outbreak of violence. This began in late December 2019, when a rocket attack (apparently launched by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia) on a US airbase in Iraq killed one American contractor and injured four US service personnel. The US responded by bombing bases in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 pro-Iranian militia fighters, whose supporters then staged a mob attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
Trump responded on Twitter, warning that Iran would “pay a very BIG PRICE” for any “lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities”. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, replied with his own tweet, taunting Trump: “You can’t do anything.” This was followed on 3 January 2020 by the drone strike against Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi politician and military commander, at Baghdad airport.
The assassination of Soleimani represents an especially perilous action on the part of the US. The 62-year-old general, who was head of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, is widely considered to have been the most powerful figure in Iran after Khamenei, and one of the most significant operatives transforming the Middle East. As the man spearheading Iran’s expanding influence across the region, overseeing its proxy forces from Lebanon to Iraq, as well as its global clandestine operations, Soleimani stood at the heart of the country’s hegemonic aspirations.
Khamenei promised a “forceful revenge”, while Trump threatened to blow up 52 targets, including cultural sites, in Iran – referring to the number of diplomatic hostages seized by the Iranians in 1979 at the American embassy in Tehran. In an interview with CNN, Hossein Dehghan, Khamenei’s military adviser, then threatened that “no American military staff, no American political centre, no American military base, no American vessel will be safe”.
Iran’s choice of response was not simple. They had just been given lesson in how much the Americans know about the plans and movements of their leadership – including those of its top spymaster – as well as the dangers of complacency and lax security (it is possible that by being so brazen in his movements, Soleimani had started to believe his own myth of invulnerability).
If a big counter-attack by Iran was now foiled that would double their sense of humiliation. They also had to assess how prepared they really were for large-scale American retaliation. A more restrained, or less bloody response – such as a cyber attack, or an operation conducted well away from the Middle East by hard-to-trace Iranian agents, or a strike against US-allied assets in the region that leaves American personnel unharmed – would be sufficiently ambiguous to complicate American plans for a response. In the end they went to the modest end of the scale, a missile strike as promised directed against American personnel and materiel at two US bases in Iraq, which in the end caused minimal damage. The Iranians must now hope that Trump will refrain from a devastating response.
There are also obvious advantages in keeping the Americans guessing. The assassination of Soleimani was not part of any broader strategy and so there were no plans in place to follow it up or to deal with the fallout. No prior preparations had been made to tackle Iranian anger, so US forces across the Middle East have had little choice but to hunker down and wait on Iran’s response, unsure of when and where a counter-attack may come. US-led forces fighting Islamic State (IS) have had to suspend operations while they concentrate on protecting themselves against Iranian reprisals. The Iraqi government is currently drawing up a timetable for American forces to depart the country after parliament voted for their expulsion (although when tempers subside, it may try to retain US on-ground support as a counter-weight to Iran and to help the fight against IS). But the killing of the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019 will look less impressive should IS now have the opportunity to regroup in Iraq. Trump wanted to use the defeat of IS to extract US forces from the region, but now he must insist that they stay because it will look weak to be pushed out.
Another major consequence of Soleimani’s death is that Iran no longer considers itself fully bound by the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama and his European allies in 2015. The Iranian regime may now expand uranium enrichment, even if it has not abandoned the deal altogether or suspended inspection provisions. Given that the whole sorry sequence of events began in May 2018, when Trump decided to abandon the deal to get a better one, this is a dangerous move; Iranians will see recent events as strengthening the case for their own nuclear weapons.
In order to lift the economic sanctions Trump reimposed on Iran in 2018, it was required not only to reinforce existing commitments to abandon its nuclear programme, but to end support for its proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. All forces under Iran’s command were to withdraw from Syria and threats to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel were to cease. In short, it was a demand to undo Soleimani’s life work and a warning that the Iranian economy would be severely weakened until this was done.
Iran would not accede to these demands, yet the economic coercion was effective, aggravated by Iran’s internal corruption and mismanagement. Despite Soleimani’s best efforts, the regime came under pressure as last year thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the deteriorating standards of living. Throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq and Lebanon, similar popular uprisings also challenged Iranian-sponsored brutality. Many of those who are engaged in these protests will be thrilled to see the back of Soleimani, and hope that without his talents Tehran will struggle to impose its will in the future.
For the moment, however, the dominant mood in Iran and Iraq is anti-Americanism. Even Washington’s staunchest allies in the region and those who once cheer-led Trump’s Iran policy are calling for restraint and de-escalation. Saudi Arabia is actively looking for ways to mediate between Iran and the US, and Israel is keeping its distance, describing the assassination of Soleimani as part of a purely US-Iranian fight. In Europe, Britain, France and Germany – which were given no prior warning of the American strike on Soleimani – have refused to renounce the nuclear deal. As the Trump administration prepares for whatever comes next, it does so without the enthusiastic support of allies. They have lost confidence in Trump’s judgement, as he impulsively lurches from passivity to belligerence.
US allies in Europe will be relieved that Trump has taken the opportunity to avoid further escalation, despite Iran mounting an attack that would in other circumstances be considered a major provocation. European states will also have noted Washington’s request to harden their stance against Iran and join the US in abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal. So whole both the US and Iran have demonstrated that mindless escalation can be halted, and even reversed, the bad news is that nothing has been settled politically. There has certainly been no de-escalation in policy or rhetoric.
It would be optimistic to imagine this process being thrown into reverse in the near future by some imaginative diplomacy, but it would help for the moment if policy could be driven in both Tehran and Washington by sober reflection rather than wounded pride.
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London
This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran