Killing the al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3 was an unprecedented measure by the United States in its four decades of confrontation with Iran. This assertive approach has enforced a much-needed deterrence of Iran and altered the narrative about a waning American influence. At the same time, it has also antagonized Tehran even if the Iranian regime appears to be standing down for now. The post-Soleimani Middle East offers both challenges and opportunities; however, the Trump Administration does not seem to have a strategy to either mitigate or exploit them.
Soleimani was the architect of Iranian expansion in the Levant and the key figure in Tehran who, since last summer, inspired the sporadic attacks against Gulf allies of Washington and most recently against US assets in Iraq. The White House’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and impose crippling sanctions, most notably zeroing Iran’s oil exports, has pushed Tehran to the edge. While the Trump Administration has failed to arm-wrestle Tehran to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian regime has been unable to increase the regional cost of these sanctions on US interests in the Middle East. The killing of Soleimani and the firing of Iranian ballistic missiles on military bases housing American forces in Iraq did not alter the existing dynamics between Washington and Tehran: neither country is ready for war or for negotiation.
Moreover, President Donald Trump was not merely driven by domestic politics in ordering Soleimani’s elimination. This operation apparently had been planned since at least June 2019 (with other reports tracing it back to spring 2017), and it seems to have been part of a larger campaign by the Trump Administration which reportedly included targeting but missing the Quds Force commander in Yemen, Abdul Reza Shahlai. However, these plans seem to have been intensified in the past weeks after rockets hit a military base in Kirkuk and killed an American contractor, which triggered a sequence of violence with US airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah (an Iran-backed group in Iraq), the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad, and ultimately the killing of Soleimani. In recent months, the Trump Administration has moved past the question of how to deter Iran without being dragged to a war. CIA director Gina Haspel had reportedly advised Trump to approve the killing of Soleimani and predicted a subdued Iranian reaction. There is also an unprecedented synergy in Trump’s national security team with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien playing a crucial role in the decision-making process to confront Iran, all with the blessing of Vice President Mike Pence.
President Trump has won this round against the Iranian regime with minimal impact, so far, on US foreign policy and maximum benefits for him in American domestic politics. The debate in Congress on whether the Trump Administration has exaggerated the intelligence on what Soleimani was planning might fizzle if Iran’s retaliation efforts remains limited. The White House has managed—temporarily, at least—to restore deterrence with the Iranian regime, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. More should be expected in the post-Soleimani Middle East.
Iranian Retaliation: The “Resistance Front”
The killing of Soleimani, Tehran’s clumsy handling of the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner, and the ongoing protests inside Iran make the regime in Tehran more vulnerable––and potentially more dangerous––than ever. There is a discussion underway between the Iranian regime and its proxies about how best to react to the killing of Soleimani as a consensus seems to have emerged on the general idea of driving US forces out of the region.
In his press conference on January 9, the Air Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said that after targeting Iraqi military bases housing US soldiers, the next phase of retaliation will be undertaken by what he called “the resistance front.” The optics of the message were important and telling, with the flags of Iran-backed armed movements in the background next to the Iranian flag. The regime in Tehran is plainly in crisis mode and is expecting allies to rally around—even if these allies might have few options.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah delivered two speeches since the killing of Soleimani. The first was on January 5, when he asserted that there is now a new phase with a focus on driving US forces out of the region. He said the way to accelerate this goal is to attack US military positions (rather than civilians). In his second speech, on January 12, Nasrallah took this matter further by urging that “it is time for the axis of resistance to start working” on this objective.
Indeed, this conversation started as Iranian officials continued Soleimani’s role of keeping Iraqi armed groups on the same wavelength and managing the unpredictable Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. A meeting was arranged in the Iranian city of Qom on January 13 between Sadr, al-Nujaba movement leader Akram al-Kaabi, and the secretary general of Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, Abu Alaa al-Walai, to discuss the presence of US forces in Iraq and efforts to form the new Iraqi government.
Iran is trying to rearrange its main influence in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, by appointing a successor to the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilizing Committee, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed along with Soleimani. The Iraqi military announced that the leader of the “Fatah Alliance,” Hadi al-Amiri, has been appointed as the successor of Muhandis. Most importantly, Iran wants Sadr to be involved in driving American forces out of Iraq, though the latter wants this effort to focus solely on political pressure and not military attacks. On January 8, he posted a statement on Twitter asserting that the “crisis is over,” in reference to the killing of Soleimani and Iran’s retaliation, both on Iraqi territory.
Syria’s national security chief, Major General Ali Mamlouk, visited Iran on January 5 to offer condolences on the death of Soleimani. Then the Syrian regime sent a high-level delegation to Tehran on January 12, which came after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Syria on January 7 to make sure the Syrian regime would not drift toward Tehran and that Syria would not become an arena for US-Iranian confrontation after the killing of Soleimani.
Given the looming financial crisis and economic collapse in Lebanon, Nasrallah might be hesitant to involve Lebanon as a battleground for avenging Soleimani, most notably considering the growing frustration among Hezbollah constituents since the Lebanese protests began in October 2019. Russia and Turkey will also limit any Iranian retaliation in a complicated area like northeastern Syria, and Iran-backed armed groups in Syria are not well established to lead such an effort alone. For now, Iraq seems to provide the battleground for the United States and Iran; however, there are limitations they must observe so as not to push the country to the brink, given that Iraqi protesters are demanding better governance. Iran-backed groups might increase political pressure in Iraq and Lebanon by having veteran politicians in the new cabinet in addition to new technocratic names to appease the demands of the protesters. At the same time, a political impasse might prevail in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
US Strategy Post-Soleimani
The Trump Administration has clearly moved beyond sanctions and the “maximum pressure” approach toward Iran. It is ready, if needed, to go on the offensive with the Iranian regime, militarily and diplomatically, and this carries risks for all parties involved. Hence, there are immediate implications for the US approach in the Middle East.
The killing of Soleimani shows the extent to which US intelligence is able to track the moves and communications of Iranian officials. According to The New York Times, before the assassination, messages were intercepted in which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asked Soleimani to return to Tehran for consultations. This intelligence war will most likely be intensified between the two sides moving forward.
Another immediate impact is that the focus on the so-called Islamic State (IS) will decrease as attention shifts to protecting American troops from the Iranian regime and its proxies. The US-led coalition halted the operations in Iraq and Syria on January 5, two days after the killing of Soleimani, hence the remnants of IS might benefit in one way or another from the US-Iran confrontation. Another consequence of Soleimani’s killing is that the Trump Administration will once again have to delay shifting resources from the Middle East to deter Russia and China. There are currently around 54,500 American soldiers deployed in the Middle East and the killing of Soleimani puts them on alert for the foreseeable future. Indeed, Trump has been open about the idea of withdrawing, or at least redeploying, US forces in the region.
The complications in Middle East conflicts predate the killing of Soleimani; the protests in Lebanon and Iraq have raged since last October while there is no horizon for a political solution in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The big question is how the Trump Administration will translate into policy or exploit this new deterrence balance with Iran, without offering an explicit strategy. The White House has now returned to using sanctions as a primary tool by threatening to take punitive measures against the Iraqi government if it insists on driving US forces out of Iraq.
Trump has opened the door wide for a new phase of political pressure on US influence in Iraq—and perhaps Lebanon at some point—without an articulated game plan beyond imposing sanctions. There are open questions whether the United States will lose Iraq in the long term as a result of killing Soleimani. While this remains unclear for now, the Trump Administration is at the very least deepening the sectarian divide in Iraqi politics and helping the Iranian regime to distract from the demands of Iraqi protesters.
The Trump Administration will use Congress’ Caesar Act to pressure Russia on Iranian influence in Syria; but no breakthrough should be expected on the political front, given that there is no credible US-Russian engagement nor a high-level US commitment to advance the political process in Syria. All parties concerned might be more interested in maintaining the status quo in northeastern Syria, in light of the dynamics there. The Trump Administration might pressure Gulf allies that are considering to financially and economically engage the Syrian regime, a move that would be met with Russian reservations. Moreover, US allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria are weaker and have little to offer and, most importantly, they might not trust that Washington would help them in case they lead the confrontation against pro-Iran leaders and politicians, given that the Trump Administration did not protect Gulf allies last year and partially gave up on Kurdish allies in Syria.
New Dynamics in the US-Iran Conflict
There are three options ahead for the United States: war, negotiation, or a long-running battle of attrition. US forces remain in a defensive posture until they are ordered to do otherwise by the White House. However, the Trump Administration seems to be alone in any scenario that materializes ahead. Both European and Gulf allies are distancing themselves from Washington as a result of escalating tensions with Iran. European leaders blame Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal without offering an alternative, and Gulf leaders do not want to serve as the battlefield of this US-Iranian confrontation nor to encounter additional Houthi attacks. While this European and Gulf neutrality restrains the American diplomatic effort, it also limits Tehran’s ability to retaliate in the Gulf. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told the Iraqi parliament on January 6 that upon arriving in Baghdad, Soleimani was carrying the Iranian response to the Saudi message of de-escalation. Iran might want to maintain this détente with Gulf leaders.
It will be hard for both sides to return to the time of the pre-Soleimani killing as mistrust is increasing; however, Washington and Tehran remain committed to back channel messages to avoid serious miscalculations since direct communications between them had halted since Trump came into office in 2017. Nevertheless, this back channel would most likely not lead to a breakthrough in any nuclear talks.
The fundamental challenge is that both sides have their own domestic environment that might prevent such a breakthrough. Trump confronts an impeachment trial and a US presidential election year. For his part, Khamenei faces mounting pressure at home so giving in to the United States after the killing of Soleimani would be perceived as a sign of weakness. The current dynamics of no war and no negotiation might last until the elections in November, but it remains unclear to what extent Washington and Tehran would be willing to keep their proxy confrontation contained, most notably in Iraq and Lebanon. While direct talks are improbable in the foreseeable future, they are inevitable when the time is right, and the latest round of confrontation might then be a factor in facilitating such a breakthrough.
It is not apparent whether Trump and Khamenei understood the implications of altering the US-Iran rules of engagement. Khamenei’s bet was that Trump would never retaliate by taking such a radical move so now the regime’s policy of confrontation has reached a dead end. The killing of Soleimani runs against Trump’s basic instincts of rejecting endless wars in the Middle East and predisposes the president to relegate this ticking bomb to his successor—or his own second term. To be sure, Trump is thinking short-term on Iran with no clear long-term objectives in the Middle East.
It is not a surprise that the Iranian regime did not retaliate forcefully. Such restraint was also exhibited after the CIA-Mossad joint operation that killed Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Syria in February 2008. The Iranian regime prefers the long game confrontation instead of a classical war; however, there are limited options to strike back beyond Iraq and potentially Afghanistan, where US troops are most vulnerable. How the Iranian regime might or might not retaliate could define Trump’s legacy in the Middle East.
This article was republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.