On January 3rd, 2020, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) foreign and clandestine operations division known as the Quds Force and, by some accounts, the second most powerful man in Iran, was killed in an American drone strike. Upon hearing this news, many across the Middle East celebrated: thousands, including many Shiites, rejoiced in the streets of Baghdad, and people gave out candy across Gaza and Syria. Their schadenfreude was warranted: Soleimani haunted the region. He and his puppet militias have killed tens of thousands from Gaza to Yemen and, most recently, he ordered the slaughter of over 500 Iraqis, many of them Shiites, who were protesting against Iranian interference in their country. Even in Iran, one of the most common chants in ongoing anti-regime protests, started in response to the regime’s cover-up of the downing of a passenger plane on January 8th, is “Soleimani was a murderer; his leader [Supreme Leader Khamenei] is too.” Despite the jubilance of many Middle Easterners, many in the West have decried the killing of Soleimani as an unnecessary and destabilizing escalation – a belief with which I firmly disagree. Instead, I believe that the strike was exactly what the United States’ Iran policy needed.
The drone strike came as a result of the Trump Administration’s failure to place an unacceptably high cost on Iranian actions that harm the U.S. or its allies – to reestablish deterrence with Iran – despite numerous provocations. First, the United States failed to retaliate against Iran in summer 2019 after the IRGC attacked multiple oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, a violation of international law. Second, also last June, the IRGC shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone flying over international airspace; the United States did nothing. Then, on September 14th, Iran attacked Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, an important American ally, temporarily cutting the Gulf monarchy’s oil production in half; again, the United States did nothing to deter future provocations. Following this escalation, the United States launched a cyberattack that interfered with the IRGC’s ability to attack Gulf oil tankers, but clearly it wasn’t enough to deter future action. Several months later, on December 27th, Kataib Hezbollah, a Quds Force-controlled Shia Militia in Iraq, killed an American citizen who worked as a defense contractor and injured several coalition soldiers in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. In response, the United States killed 25 militiamen in airstrikes on five different locations associated with the group. Though a clear and powerful response, the American airstrike failed to reestablish deterrence with Iran. On New Year’s Eve, Kataib Hezbollah attacked the American Embassy in Baghdad and penetrated parts of the compound. The assault was only called off after the emergency deployment of about 100 Marines. In retaliation, the United States killed General Soleimani, the man directly responsible for the last two provocations, on January 3rd.
For now, this strike has successfully reestablished deterrence with Iran. In retaliation for the death of their top general, Iran launched 15 missiles, 4 of which failed, at two Iraqi bases where U.S. forces were stationed on January 8th. The attack killed no Americans or Iraqis but left dozens of American soldiers with concussions. This appears to have been by design, suggesting that this was just a ‘PR’ strike meant to project an image of strength rather than a true retaliation, as evidenced by images of the damage showing that the Iranians chose to avoid striking areas of the base where personnel would be. Furthermore, Iran warned Iraq of its strike, likely knowing that the United States would be tipped off by the Iraqis either directly or by their precautionary measures. The only thing the Iranian regime has achieved on its night of vengeance was the downing of a civilian plane carrying over a hundred Iranian citizens, which has sparked massive protests against the regime. It’s possible that Iran will further retaliate by attacking a softer target with plausible deniability, as they’ve occasionally done before. But, as of now, it appears that the United States has reestablished deterrence with Iran.
The other two ‘consequences’ for the killing of Solemani have been meaningless so far. Despite early media reports, Iraq did not kick the United States military out of the country. Instead, the legislature only asked the government to, according to an Iraqi parliamentarian, “do whatever it should do to limit and gradually end foreign forces in Iraq”. As legal experts have noted, the vote was “worthless”. Furthermore, all Kurdish members of parliament (MP) and the majority of Sunni MPs protested the vote despite threats made by Kataib Hezbollah. The second ‘consequence’ was Iran announcing that they would violate restrictions on uranium enrichment established in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the “Iran Deal.” First of all, we don’t know how strictly Iran was following the JCPOA since they have a long history of failed and successful violations of the deal, most notably their prevention of the International Atomic Energy Agency from investigating their military sites. Second, seeing as the regime has yet to back their announcement with concrete action, it’s possible that this is just more bluster from the regime for PR purposes, a common tactic among Middle Eastern leaders.
By killing Soleimani, the United States demonstrated to Iran that it would pay a high cost for direct anti-American actions, thus reestablishing the deterrence with Iran the US had lost over the past several months. In doing so, the US has forced Iran’s hand and tactics; instead of direct attacks on America and its allies, Iran and its proxies will now most likely return to their old tactic of low-level harassment. Despite this achievement, the Trump Administration should not be lulled into a false sense of security: Iran is America’s primary threat in the region, and it will remain so as long as the Islamist regime is in power. Luckily, the Iranian people have once again taken to the streets to demonstrate for the end of the regime, even after 1500 protestors were massacred in late 2019. The question is, will our President do what’s needed to help them?