A U.S. airstrike early Friday morning killed a top Iranian general, marking a major escalation in tensions between the two countries. Until now, the United States and Iran have mostly exchanged blows indirectly through proxies in the region. The confirmation of Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s death, however, changes that playbook and takes us into uncharted territory.
Soleimani, one of the country’s top military figures, led the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force and Iran’s covert operations in countries like Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon confirmed in a statement that Friday’s strike, at an Iraqi airport, was meant to target Soleimani, calling it a “defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad.”
In reality, it’s hard to read what the United States did as a defensive action. Murdering another country’s top military official seems more like a formal declaration of hostilities. But rather than an all-out war between the United States and Iran, what we’ll see next is a bit more uncertain. And that’s almost scarier.
“Iran knows that it can’t win [an all-out conventional war], so it’s not going to start it and then lose it, because that’s a hell of a lot worse than no retribution for [Soleimani’s death],” says Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and the Century Foundation’s Middle East Department. “What it will do, however,” Esfandiary tells Mic, “is react decisively by using asymmetric warfare, so things like drawing on its proxies in the region to cause more trouble in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.”
Iran could also ramp up its cyberattacks or its targeting of people and infrastructure in the Middle East more generally, Esfandiary says. While she doesn’t anticipate these sorts of attacks anytime soon, Esfandiary says the possibility for covert or indirect moves — something like last September’s drone strike on oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia — is high as Iran is “under pressure” to react somehow to such a major provocation.
Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at John Hopkins University who has studied the Revolutionary Guards, observed on Twitter that Soleimani’s assassination will most likely be used as a “rallying cry” across the Middle East, but it will not significantly weaken Iran’s role in the region.
That’s exactly the problem with the U.S. strategy here. It took a decisive, lethal action that was sure to roil Iran and its citizens, who are wary of continued American intervention. But by attacking a country like Iran, which is far from a failed state and is nearly four times larger than Iraq, the U.S. opened itself up to a variety of possible counterattacks. It’s impossible to say definitively what’ll happen next, and thus it’s impossible for the U.S. to not only adequately prepare itself, but also for the U.S. government to credibly inform its citizens of what to expect.
Take, for example, how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the strike on Soleimani. “The American people should know that the president's decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives,” Pompeo told CNN on Friday, adding that the attack staved off an “imminent attack.” But while Pompeo was talking up how Trump’s decision had made Americans safer, the very same State Department he oversees was advising all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq. All consular operations in Iraq have also been suspended, and the Green Zone in Baghdad, which includes the U.S. embassy, was completely locked down by Iraqi security forces.
Moreover, Katie Bo Williams of Defense One notes that there’s been no official word or further details as to what exactly the "imminent" that was. The mixed messaging — not only from the same administration, but from within the same Cabinet department — is likely because no one knows what will happen next. That creates a culture of anxiety and confusion, which isn’t exactly great in foreign policy.
In all likelihood, it will take some time for Iran to prepare its countermove — whether it’s a cyberattack or a proxy move intended to disrupt Americans’ comfort at home or abroad. What’s most concerning beyond the immediate response is the potential for things to quickly escalate. Iran’s supreme leader has already said there will be some form of retaliation, and on Friday afternoon, the Pentagon said it would deploy 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East.
The only thing we do know for certain is the Trump administration’s strategy on Iran: maximum pressure.
One week after coming to office, President Trump banned all Iranians from entering the country. A month into his presidency, his administration “officially put Iran on notice” and talks of regime change were quickly underway. Since then, Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Last June, his administration reportedly came within 10 minutes of launching a strike against the country.
And while Trump’s Cabinet has had a bit of a revolving door over the last three years, one thing hasn’t changed: their hawkishness toward Iran. While John Bolton, a noted aggressor toward Iran, left his post as national security adviser last fall, Pompeo remains. Pompeo, who once argued that the Iranian nuclear deal “strengthens Muslim extremists,” said that Iraqis are “dancing in the street for freedom” following the attack. His statement also echoes the same sort of arguments U.S. politicians made in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion — and we know how that turned out. (Iraq’s president, prime minister, and other top politicians, meanwhile, have condemned the U.S. airstrike.)
The Trump administration appears to believe that maximum pressure toward Iran is the best way to reduce that country’s power — and thus the threat it poses — in the Middle East. Trump has hinted that he even believes he could get Iran’s leadership to sign onto a better nuclear deal than the one negotiated under President Barack Obama.
“I think they want to negotiate,” Trump said in June, a few days after news broke that his administration almost attacked Iran. “And I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear.”
But the inherent problem with a “maximum pressure” strategy is this: You can argue it isn’t working, so you need to apply more pressure, or you can argue that it is working, so you need to continue to apply pressure. Either way, the plan has the U.S. pushing Iran to the brink. Which is exactly what the administration has been doing.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. media, some of those who most vocally advocated for the invasion of Iraq are back at it again. Fox News, surreally, counted Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer among its first guests when the news broke, two famous faces from the second Bush administration that invaded Iraq in 2003. The New York Times, meanwhile, published an op-ed praising Soleimani’s assassination and calling for further checks of Iran’s military power on the ground; the author of the piece was Michael Doran, who in 2003 argued that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that war would bring peace to the region.
Trump, who was eating meatloaf and ice cream at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida when the news of Soleimani’s murder broke, has already hinted at further conflict with Iran. “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” he tweeted Friday morning, seemingly decrying the nuclear agreement while touting the merits of armed conflict.
What happens next in this sort of environment is hard to predict — and you shouldn’t trust anyone who tells you what’ll happen next with confidence. But U.S. allies don’t agree with the course Trump is charting on Iran. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have all called for restraint, with France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs saying that since the airstrike, “we have woken up to a more dangerous world.”
But we don’t know exactly what form that danger will take. And that should scare us all.