The ugly fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force leader, Qassem Soleimani seems to have halted for the moment. But the forces that pushed the United States and Iran to the brink of all-out war this week are still in place. This isn’t an end, just a short break between acts. But the pullback from the brink of war can also present some opportunities.
Iran opened the door to de-escalation and Trump took it, seemingly prioritizing his base’s concern of another U.S. war in the Middle East over the bluster and bad advice of his secretary of state, among other pro-war advisers.
But this relief must be tempered with caution. We may have taken a step or two back from the brink of war, but we’re still perilously close to the edge. The Iran war hawks, neoconservative ideologues, and pro-Likud activists are not going to stop pressing for provocative measures against Iran. Whether they are in the Trump administration or not, the forces that have been pressing for war with Iran must be confronted now, more than ever. We also need to consider the role of local actors and how that might affect both American and Iranian strategy.
Iran is trying to strike a delicate balance. Seemingly, Iran made a largely symbolic show of retaliation for Soleimani’s death because, in addition to wanting to avoid escalation with the U.S., it did not want to allow that attack by the U.S. to derail its true objective, forcing the Americans out of Iraq. The U.S. decision to assassinate Soleimani was a huge boon to Iran’s strategy in this regard, diverting much of the energy that had been driving protests in Iraq against both Iran and America’s presence into anger at Washington for threatening to plunge Iraq into the middle of an all-out war once again. Why squander such a great gift on an act of revenge, even if, ironically, the Iranians may have compromised that goal unintentionally with their bungled response to the downing of a civilian airliner.
In bombing two airbases housing U.S. forces in Iraq, Iranian leaders addressed the anger of the Iranian public. But at the same time by minimizing casualties they also got the benefit of both sides backing away from all-out war, and of powerfully reinforcing the image of Iran as the more reasonable actor in the conflict. It also might have given Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the impression that they were able to kill Soleimani without paying a significant price, while not divining that there might be a more subtle Iranian strategy at play.
The tightrope Iran had to walk here was precarious, but it appears they have pulled it off. The competing needs — to satisfy the public need for revenge and to keep their eye on the prize of forcing the U.S. out of Iraq — account for the mixed messages that came out of Tehran about whether the attack on the Iraqi air bases was sufficient retribution. But Iran is not the only one walking a fine line.
Israel has played almost no public role in this episode. Some initial rumors that Israel was involved disappeared quickly and, while Israel certainly cheered loudly at the news of Soleimani’s killing, the public enthusiasm was quickly quieted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
It is no secret that Israel long wanted Soleimani dead. A variety of concerns, sometimes internal and sometimes from Washington, prevented Israel from carrying out the assassination, and both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations held Israel back from its most aggressive actions against Iran. So, the glee expressed across the Israeli political spectrum was hardly surprising.
Yet Netanyahu had good reason to throw cold water on any Israeli celebrations. Iran’s determination to focus on its long term strategy, and therefore avoid escalation, meant that it didn’t want to involve Israel, an attitude made more convenient by the fact that, despite the expectations of many, there is no evidence of Israeli involvement. There was really no reason for Israeli help here. Soleimani made no secret of his travel in Iraq, so there was little need for Israel’s intelligence abilities (the extent of Israel’s intel involvement was merely to confirm what the United States already knew) and the U.S. obviously had the resources it needed to pull this off. This way, Israel gets something it has wanted for many years essentially for free.
But Israel is also seeing some opportunities in Soleimani’s death. In its initial assessment for 2020, Israeli Military Intelligence (MI) notes its belief that as the Quds Force regroups after Soleimani’s death, Israel will have a chance to strike significant blows against Iranian-supported forces in the region, particularly in Syria. In MI’s view, there is a good chance Hezbollah and other groups supported by Iran will respond with attacks against Israel. But they believe the failure of Soleimani to achieve his goal of arming Hezbollah in particular with higher-grade, precision weapons means that the response will stop short of sparking a prolonged conflict and the damage they can do now is much less than they could in the future if they strengthen their position.
MI also sees 2020 as a potential time of great change, with major elections due in both Iran and the United States. While there is universal expectation that U.S. policy has empowered hardliners in Iran, it is not at all clear what this means for Iran’s spending priorities. There are great needs for resources within Iran, and the diversion of funds to support groups outside the country may fuel the sort of protests we saw in 2019. It is far from certain that Tehran will be able to maintain the level of support they have shown in recent years.
Ironically, a Democratic victory over Donald Trump in November may not be welcomed by the Israeli prime minister, but Trump’s impulsiveness makes Israeli planning much more complicated, and military coordination was much deeper before Trump. Israel has not forgotten that Trump agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on security arrangements in southern Syria despite the objections from Israel. It’s the sort of thing that was unthinkable under past presidents, from either party, and likely would be again under any of the Democratic candidates.
Netanyahu is facing an unprecedented third election in March after the previous two held in 2019 both failed to produce a ruling coalition. Israelis, rightly or wrongly, see him as the man who has handled the Iran issue competently for the past ten years. But a big part of that view is that he has avoided a major confrontation with the Islamic Republic while launching pinpoint strikes against targets in places like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
But if a real war is on the horizon, Netanyahu’s position is shaky. It’s one thing to claim deterrence through strength, which is Netanyahu’s selling point. But in an actual war, his rivals from the Blue and White coalition — which includes three former Chiefs of Staff in Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi would be able to make the case that they are better suited to lead the country.
As Israeli journalist Neri Zilber correctly pointed out, “An actual war is bad, messy and never easy. But an uptick in tensions, and a focus on military affairs (in contrast to indictments), could prove beneficial for an experienced incumbent.” For Netanyahu, who faces serious corruption charges, this is not just about holding on to his position at the top of the Israeli government. It is about avoiding the fate of his immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert — prison. His attempt to win parliamentary immunity for his corruption charges is ongoing, but that’s a long shot for him.
While Netanyahu wants to hold the tension at about the current level, the United States’ other close regional ally, Saudi Arabia, is increasingly inclined to lower it. After the United States backed away from a military response to a bombing attack on a Saudi oil refinery in September that was widely blamed on Iran (although this has still not been conclusively proven), the Saudis now question whether the U.S. will have its back in a confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Unlike Israel, the Saudis, correctly, have no confidence that they would ultimately triumph in a direct showdown with Iran. As a result, Saudi Arabia wants to reduce tensions.
That must concern the hawks in Washington. Israel is now alone among the U.S.’s regional partners in supporting a hawkish position on Iran, and even it seems a bit reluctant in the face of all-out war. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Trump administration is rudderless in its policy here, and there is a growing realization that quitting the JCPOA was a bad idea.
That opens a real opportunity to shift the discourse on Iran. We should be communicating to Israel as well as to Saudi Arabia that we will help them avoid conflict by standing with them if they work to find diplomatic solutions to regional problems. With the Saudis leaning toward diplomacy with Iran and Israel trying to balance on a tightrope of tension stopping short of war, we are seeing the best opportunity to shift policy away from confrontation and toward constructive engagement we are likely to see for some time.