In a dangerous world, every US use of military force should be backed up by a careful calculation of risks and a strategy to cope with the adversary’s response. Neither risk-balancing nor strategy is apparent in President Trump’s decision to kill Major General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. With that killing — and Iran’s announcement it would exact a “harsh revenge” — there is a real danger the Middle East will slide even further into the fires of war.
Soleimani was indeed a deadly enemy of the United States. For decades, he led Iran’s foreign military and intelligence operations, arming and strengthening groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, helping President Bashar Assad of Syria crush the Syrian rebels, building up the militias in Iraq that fought against American troops and then fought to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, and more. Iraqi militias killed hundreds of US troops with explosive devices Soleimani’s forces supplied. The Trump administration reports that Soleimani’s killing was intended to disrupt major attacks he was planning.
Fair enough. But Soleimani was also a key figure in Iran’s government — by some polls, the Iranian with more popular support than any other. He was a favorite of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and a powerful rival of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Many saw him as a potential future leader of Iran. Killing Soleimani is a major step — one Iran will surely consider an act of war. Reportedly, both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama decided against striking Soleimani, seeing the risks as greater than the benefits. President Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani may not disrupt planning for attacks as much as hoped, as Ayatollah Khamenei quickly promoted Soleimani’s longtime deputy to replace him and carry on his mission.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, after an emergency meeting, collectively announced that it had decided how to strike back, warning that “a harsh revenge awaits the criminals who have the general’s blood on their hands.” In part because of the tentacles Soleimani helped build throughout the Middle East, Iran has many response options.
Just in the last few months, Iran or Iranian-backed forces have carried out an extraordinarily precise attack on the Abqaiq facility critical to Saudi Arabia’s oil production, placed mines on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and shot down a US military drone — all actions Iran intended in part as warnings of what it could do if provoked. The State Department has already ordered the evacuation of US citizens from Iraq in anticipation of possible attacks by Iranian-backed militias there — though US military forces will still be at risk. Hezbollah has carried out terrorist attacks all over the world and has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles targeted on Israel — some precision-guided, courtesy of Soleimani’s forces. Iranian-backed forces in Syria remain a deadly threat to the remaining US forces there, and Houthi rebels in Yemen could renew and escalate their attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s government sees the strike, in the words of the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as “a brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty” — particularly since it also killed the leader of the coalition of mostly Iranian-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which played a key role in defeating the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq, and are now loosely part of the Iraqi government. Iraq will be under severe pressure to end or cut back the US military presence — further strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq, despite recent anti-Iranian protests.
With the Trump administration having pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran may also further expand its nuclear capabilities, edging closer to a nuclear bomb. While Iran will probably be careful not to go far enough to provoke the United States or Israel to bomb its nuclear facilities, it may expand its uranium enrichment or restart work on a reactor for plutonium production, giving it a shorter path to nuclear weapons should it choose to go that route.
Once Iran strikes back, the Trump administration will have to decide how to respond to that action — which may then provoke an ongoing cycle of response and counter-response. To avoid escalation to a catastrophic regional war, the Trump administration will need a careful strategy combining de-escalation, diplomacy, and deterrence. But careful strategy in foreign crises is an area where the Trump team has a record unblemished by success.
Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School, leads the Managing the Atom project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He previously served as an adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as a study director at the National Academy of Sciences.