Traveling with a congressional delegation to Iraq more than a decade ago, I recall one briefing by the US command in Baghdad. Soldiers had just caught several Iranians importing a few dozen copper plate-fused bombs uniquely designed for American military vehicles. These “explosively formed penetrators” were able to pierce even up-armored Humvees, and did so with devastating results. Hundreds of Americans lost their lives because of them.
Those weapons arrived courtesy of Iran’s Quds Force, which Major General Qassem Soleimani commanded for more than two decades. Soleimani was the personification of Iran’s malign regional influence, and led his country’s operations in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. Given the blood on his hands, and the credible reports that he was planning additional attacks on American personnel in Iraq, his death in a US airstrike Thursday delivers a measure of justice.
Whether it was also wise remains to be seen. Soleimani was the most popular regime figure in Iran and arguably the country’s second-most powerful man. Tehran will use his death as a much-needed rallying cry for its divided population, and the Supreme Leader has already issued calls for vengeance. The regime will wish to show its people and the world that it can fight back.
The most immediate consequence of the killing will be to move US-Iran tensions from a proxy fight into the realm of direct conflict. The United States must prepare for retaliation against its personnel throughout the region and for a broader escalation. The two countries have engaged in direct fighting before, ranging from Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 to Tehran’s shootdown of an unarmed American surveillance drone just months ago. But Soleimani’s killing takes tensions to an entirely new level.
It is not inevitable that the result is an all-out shooting war between the United States and Iran. While Americans rightly worry about Iranian retaliation, Tehran, too, must consider the consequences of escalation. The next set of decisions in both capitals will determine to a large degree the long-term course of events.
Here the Trump administration would do well to clarify the objectives of its Iran policy. The president has talked publicly about the attractions of a treaty that would replace the Iran nuclear deal from which he withdrew. In 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued 12 sweeping demands for changes in Iranian behavior that went well beyond the nuclear file. And former National Security Adviser John Bolton seemed more bent on regime change. Pressure is the common tactic on which all can agree, but what precisely the Trump administration is trying to achieve with it remains unclear.
A second-order effect of Soleimani’s killing will be on the American troop presence in Iraq. Proposals to require a withdrawal of US forces have previously failed in the Iraqi parliament; now their future is not so clear. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was reported to be personally close to Soleimani, has condemned the killing, calling the Quds Force commander a “martyr” and the operation to eliminate him “a blatant attack on the dignity of the country.” A forced withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would have serious consequences for the anti-ISIS effort both there and in Syria.
The broadest implication of Soleimani’s killing is to remind the world that, for all the talk of a “post-American Middle East,” reports of it have been greatly exaggerated. President Trump, like his predecessor, wishes to end the wars there and reduce American involvement. Yet there are more US troops on the ground today than when Trump took office, and he has added some 14,000 since the summer alone. Former president Barack Obama sought to extricate America from Middle East conflicts, but reintroduced forces into Iraq, went to war in Libya, led the anti-ISIS fight in Syria, and assisted Saudi and Emirati operations in Yemen. Trump pledges to end the so-called forever wars, but now must gird for escalation in the very region he says so unwisely consumes American attention and resources.
That’s the Middle East. At a time of renewed great power competition, with North Korea rattling its saber, and with a host of other issues looming, the American role in the Middle East somehow endures. A “post-Middle East” US foreign policy is attractive but unrealistic, given the enduring American interests there. Determining how best to protect those interests, with minimum risk and at lowest cost, has been the most difficult national security challenge in recent decades. The next phase of tensions with Iran will force US leaders to try again.
Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.