The U.S. and Iran — Between Controlled Escalation and War

The White House insists that the overriding goal behind the January 2, 2020 assassination of the Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani was to deter Iran. But its evocation of a term that remains one of the most ambiguous and abused concepts in the language of international affairs cannot alter basic facts. Soleimani’s death is part of a regime change strategy that began with the White House’s imposition of sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy. The administration is clinging to the hope that Tehran will have neither the means nor the will to pursue what has thus far been a dangerous, if predictable, policy of controlled escalation. But this is a fantasy because Iran’s leaders fear — with considerable justification — that what is at stake is the very survival of their regime. After three days of official mourning and numerous defiant speeches, they will strike back, a point that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his chief military advisor, Major General Hossein Dehghan, have made perfectly clear. Thus, it seems that the scene has been set for a prolonged US-Iranian military confrontation.

Still, there are several reasons why a slide into war may not be inevitable. To begin with, it is far from clear Trump believes that a war will serve his quest for reelection. Indeed, following Soleimani’s assassination Trump repeated a formula that he has previously stated, namely that “We do not seek war, we do not seek nation-building, we do not seek regime change.” Although Iranian leaders will dismiss this statement, Trump apparently believes (or hopes) that having taken a decision to supposedly defend the safety of the American people, he can somehow avoid the kind of U.S. military adventurism he has long spurned. This leaves him dependent on what the Iranians do or do not do.

Convinced that Soleimani’s demise is part of a U.S. war strategy, Iran’s leaders will react in ways that they believe are best suited to deflecting this strategy. This may include deploying asymmetric force in myriad ways. But they will also consider the political situation at home and the wider geostrategic landscape in the region. Rational to a fault, Khamenei and his hardliner allies now have an opportunity to channel furor over Soleimani’s death in ways that could strengthen Iran’s political position at home and that of their allies in the region. Indeed, Iran’s decision to essentially abandon the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — is just one of several reminders that Iran’s leaders are keeping in mind an old, popular proverb that “revenge is a meal best served cold.”

Tehran and the Limits of Controlled Escalation

Over the last eight months since the United States left the JCPOA, Iran’s leaders have struggled to walk a very fine and increasingly dangerous line. On the one hand, while they took steps that signaled their readiness to permanently abandon the nuclear agreement, they continued to hope that the Europeans would find an effective mechanism to sustain Iranian oil sales, thus defeating the effort of the Trump Administration to strangle Iran’s entire economy. On the other hand, they sought to warn Washington and its Middle East allies that they would pay a heavy cost for the White House’s economic war against Iran, but without taking actions that would lead to a full-scale military conflict with the United States and/or Israel. In its efforts to balance these competing goals, Tehran raised the stakes through a policy of controlled military escalation and sabotage that heightened tensions in the Gulf, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—but not to the point that provoked a larger military confrontation. Given the relatively restrained response of both Washington and Jerusalem — not to mention actions and statements from Trump that communicated his desire to avoid military conflict — Tehran had reason to believe that its efforts to buy time for diplomacy were not in vain.

However, beginning in early Fall 2019, that strategy began to run out of steam. To Tehran’s distress, the Europeans could not undo the stranglehold of sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani recently emphasized this point, noting that US sanctions have cost Iran $200 billion in oil income. Moreover, Iran’s effort to manage the costs of sanctions by removing the gas subsidies triggered massive public protests throughout Iran, and these demonstrations exploded in tandem with waves of protests in Iraq and Lebanon. For Tehran, the demonstrators not only posed a grave threat to the political parties and militias who were the guardians of Iranian interests in Lebanon and Iraq, but Iran’s leaders — especially the security establishment—believed that the protests in both countries and in Iran were part and parcel of a US-led campaign. The use of massive lethal force by Iranian security forces and by Iranian-backed militias against protesters in Iraq underscored that Iran’s leaders believed they were facing an unprecedented threat to the regime’s very survival.

This perception seems to have led Iran’s leaders to escalate. The December 27 attack on a joint US-Iraqi military base in Kirkuk indicated as much. By firing 31 rockets—9 of which landed in the compound, wounding several American soldiers and killing one U.S. civilian translator — the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah created a provocation the White House could not ignore. The bombing two days later of five Iraqi militia camps by American F-15 jets — which produced some two dozen militia casualties — was followed by the storming of the outer ring of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by Iraqi militiamen. The nightmare of another American hostage crisis suddenly loomed real, as U.S. officials hunkered down in a bunker. The subsequent decision of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units to withdraw from the embassy was likely made in Tehran. Yet even if determined to up the ante, Iran’s leaders seemed unwilling to countenance an action that risked a huge US military response. But the cat was already out of the bag. Whether the administration’s claim that Iraqi militias were planning further attacks is true (and it certainly seems plausible), Soleimani’s assassination — along with Kataeb leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who perished at his side—was a crucial turning point. With Washington and Tehran now violating the red lines they had previously (if uneasily) respected, the stage appears set for a direct U.S.-Iran military conflict.

Iran Balances Multiple Considerations

To appreciate the implications of Soleimani’s killing, imagine what would happen if Iran assassinated the US secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iran’s leaders — and many of its citizens — view the assassination as a declaration, or reaffirmation, of war by the United States. Thus, some form of violent retribution will follow, and with that, the possibility of a wider battle. But Iran’s leaders also have multiple considerations and priorities, several of which might induce Tehran to avoid taking on Washington. These include the following:

1. Recapturing the Political Initiative in Iraq

Iraqis have not forgotten the hundreds of their fellow protesters shot down by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias in October and November 2019. But rage over Soleimani’s killing could prove more politically potent than anger toward the militias. Moreover, given the pivotal role that he played in the war against the Islamic State (IS), Iraq’s security will require sustaining coordination between Tehran and the Iraqi militias, which will be crucial to preventing a return of IS (whose leaders may have received an unanticipated boost with Soleimani’s killing). Thus, for both political and geostrategic reasons, the ongoing struggle to choose a new Iraqi prime minister will probably be resolved in ways conducive to Iran’s interests and those of its allies in Iraq. Parliament’s January 5 resolution demanding that US troops withdraw from Iraq underscores this point. Trump has responded to this development by promising to impose “very big” sanctions on Iraq that would make the sanctions imposed on Iran “look somewhat tame”; this only increases frustration with Tehran’s success in using the Soleimani’s death to reinforce its position in Iraq.

2. Sustaining Soleimani’s Regional Networks Under a New Commander

In both the western and Iranian press, Soleimani is frequently described as a kind of larger than life superhero whose special powers were indispensable to Iran’s security. However, Iran’s political system boasts robust state institutions whose power does not depend on any one individual (including Khamenei, whose office is constituted by a vast array of organizations and security and economic assets). This fact applies to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its al-Quds Force. Soleimani used that force to forge a regional security structure whose clout depended on a tightly organized hierarchy of command and control. Al-Quds Force’s new leader Esmail Ghaani, who served as deputy commander for some 20 years, has inherited this vast (and costly) legacy. Although he is not some cult-like figure and lacks Soleimani’s operational field experience, he is a creature of the organization he now leads and thus will probably work closely with other political and security officials, including the supreme leader. Ghaani must now put his mark on a sprawling security network whose officers and foot soldiers are still smarting from the loss of their leader. This learning process could provide an incentive to avoid falling into the black hole of a major military conflict with the United States.

3. Reenergizing Elections and the Majlis

The timing of Soleimani’s assassination may prove fortuitous for Iran’s leaders. Majlis elections will take place February 21, presenting opportunities as well as possible hazards. Although a hybrid autocracy, Iran’s electoral system has provided a means of managing conflicts within the elite and wider society. It also provides legitimacy for the regime that has counted on robust participation to reaffirm public support. But elections have also supplied real opportunities for reformists to mobilize voters and voice their grievances. This danger seems unlikely today, especially given the many blows the reformists have suffered as hardliners have exploited tensions with the Trump Administration to sideline their rivals.

Moreover, Soleimani’s killing has provoked an outburst of nationalist sentiment that all leaders, including reformists, have embraced. This familiar development will not obliterate the seething rage inflamed by the repression of recent street protests. But hardliners will surely try to leverage anti-US passions in ways that could mobilize enough votes to give them control over a new parliament. With presidential elections in 2021 and Khamenei’s succession on the horizon, the forward political march of hardline leaders—perhaps under the banner of a right-wing populism focused on economic grievances—seems more likely with a martyred than a living Soleimani.

4. Leveraging Geostrategic Opportunities

In the wake of Soleimani’s demise, a geostrategic map that was already working to Iran’s advantage now seems more favorable. Apart from Great Britain, European leaders — already deeply frustrated with Trump — have been uniformly critical of the White House’s actions. In the Middle East, with the exception of Israel (no surprise here), Arab leaders, including those in the Gulf, have expressed concern that the assassination could invite further regional destabilization. Most importantly, Russian officials and Kremlin-linked policy analysts have denounced the assassination. Although we are yet to hear from Russian President Vladimir Putin, by allowing others to articulate Moscow’s worries about the implications of a major foreign power assassinating a high ranking foreign official, Putin can retain credibility with Syria and Iran, but without directly assailing Trump.

While its relations with Russia have never been simple, Iran has much to gain from protecting the entente it has established with Russia, Syria, and Turkey. Underscoring this point, Iran, Russia, and China held joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean days before the assassination. Russian spokespersons celebrated this “unprecedented” initiative (as they called it), while Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani stated on Iranian state television that “the exercise” shows “that Iran cannot be isolated.” The exigencies of Iran’s evolving diplomacy rebalance its desire to avenge Soleimani’s killing with the need to protect its wider geostrategic interests.

A U.S. Iran Policy in Tatters

Striking this delicate balance will surely prove difficult. What Iran has working in its favor is a leadership that is far less prone to impulsive decision making than its arch rival in the White House. Trump’s mercurial approach to foreign policy makes it very likely that when Iran retaliates, he will feel impelled to respond in ways that could drag the United States and Iran into a wider conflict. This was clearly suggested by his threat to target some 52 Iranian sites. Still, Iran’s leaders appear ready to go the extra mile to reestablish some form of controlled escalation. Speaking to CNN, Khamenei’s military advisor Dehghan promised that the response would be of a military nature and against US “military sites,” but then repeated Khamenei’s recent assertion that the Iranian leadership would not be seeking a continuing war with the United States. He said, “The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted. Afterward they should not seek a new cycle.”

If Trump is not inclined to believe such pronouncements, he is still harboring the hope that his threats and taunts will force Iran to back down. But the elemental reality is that to the sure delight of the hardliners inside and outside the U.S. administration who have always favored regime change, Trump has no plan B that can create a credible path back to diplomacy and negotiations. As Iran’s hardline leaders exploit the opportunities created by Soleimani’s assassination to strengthen their clout at home and in the wider region, Trump finds himself backed into a corner of his own making.

This article originally appeared at Arab Center Washington DC

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