Two weeks ago, the United States seemed on the brink of starting another war in the Middle East after a drone strike killed Iran’s most notorious spymaster, Qasem Soleimani, as he departed an international airport in Baghdad. The shadowy general, in charge of the Iranian equivalent of the CIA, was one of the most effective operatives in the Middle East’s history. He built a sprawling army of proxy militias throughout the region and helped expand Tehran’s dominance in nearby countries.
But the dust has now settled, and none of the doomsday scenarios that so many in the media warned about has come to pass. It is true that Iran launched a missile attack into U.S. bases in Iraq, but the attack was merely symbolic. As Iraqi officials revealed the following day, Iran had informed them of an imminent attack on U.S. bases, a message that the Iraqis promptly and predictably passed on to the Americans. No fatalities were recorded, but the Iranian regime still told its followers that dozens if not hundreds of Americans were killed as a result of the retaliation.
Indeed, none of the doomsday scenarios were plausible to begin with. Iran has a narrow menu of options in terms of escalation against the U.S. It is not interested in a direct war with the U.S., nor are any of its proxies or allies in the region. The regime faces increasingly crippling sanctions imposed by Washington, and domestic unrest is building up with occasional street protests. Also, its allies in Iraq and Lebanon have been under unprecedented pressure from grassroots protests, persistent since October. In Syria, the currency is collapsing on historic levels as more than one third of the country remains outside the control of the Iranian-backed government. Iran is embroiled in domestic and regional crises, and many of the gains it made in recent years are still tenuous.
In the panic that followed the news of Soleimani’s killing, that essential context was overlooked. Pundits and former officials warned of a showdown, between Iran and the U.S., that Tehran would not want. When the confrontation did not pan out, critics still maintained that this was mere luck. One journalist suggested that the war was averted because the mullahs in Iran exercised “more restraint” than the U.S. did.
In reality, the alarmism was never warranted. The circumstances around Soleimani’s killing exposed not just Iran’s many vulnerabilities and limited options for escalation against the U.S. but also serious myths that shape much of the American perception of the Iranian regime. Specifically, the idea that Iran can inflict damage on the U.S. is an outdated view about the situation in the region.
In 2020, unlike the early years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. has little footprint in conflict zones such Iraq and Syria. Iran, on the other hand, has invested heavily in keeping its allies in power, almost all of them now under domestic pressure. In other words, in a reverse of the Iraq War dynamics, the U.S. can mess with Iran in many more ways than Iran can retaliate. That is a new reality to which pundits and policymakers in the U.S. still need to catch up. The policy shift toward Iran under the Trump administration — to increase military, political, and economic pressure to weaken its regional hegemony — is exposing such vulnerabilities and demonstrating that the U.S. can deter Iran with minimal costs.
The apocalyptic commentary we witnessed this month has become the default response to provocations from Iran or its allies. Consider, for example, the reactions when President Obama announced he would launch punitive strikes against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons in 2013. The case in favor of strikes could not have been more compelling: Damascus violated an explicit red line that Obama declared against an internationally forbidden weapon — “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Similar scenarios of a “Third World War” were presented. Some even pointed to Syria’s (nonexistent) formidable air defenses. Obama eventually backed down and struck what can be described only as a face-saving agreement with Russia, the regime’s international patron, to end Syria’s use of chemical weapons and dismantle its arsenal. Despite the agreement, such attacks persisted.
It was President Trump who launched punitive strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad four years later Again, none of the scenarios that many had warned about developed. The Syrians stood by as 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from the Mediterranean Sea, landed on military bases. Unlike 2013, this time Russia was present on the ground inside Syria, after its military intervention in 2015, so the stakes were even higher for the U.S. in 2017.
The point is that the usual pushback against any assertive U.S. policy toward Iran has little basis in reality. It is based largely on exaggeration and fear-mongering that emboldens the regime in Iran and provides it with the space to operate throughout the region with impunity. How else would one explain that Soleimani, who was accused of having American blood on his hands, was making public appearances not far from American forces during the fight against the Islamic State? He organized the Benghazi-style storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Just days before he was killed, he had ordered a proxy attack, on a military base housing U.S. forces, that killed an American civilian contractor. Yet he still traveled to Iraq, probably suspecting that the U.S. would not dare to target him.
Indeed, nobody had expected the U.S. would carry out such a high-level attack. Under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, the U.S. seemed to have given Iran a free hand in the region — not responding to its provocations as long as Iran acted with plausible deniability. The basis of the U.S. policy became that Iran, not the U.S., had the upper hand. Just in the six months before Soleimani’s killing, Iran was accused of being behind tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf, the downing of a U.S. drone over international waters, and the targeting of Saudi oil facilities, besides the killing of the U.S. contractor and the storming of the U.S. embassy.
Iran, then, had reason to feel that it could get comfortable around the U.S. Tehran suspected that the only tools the U.S. had were economic sanctions, which it could endure or circumvent through its proxy and state networks in the region. The new policy, under the current administration, started to deploy other tools, including the frequent targeting of Iranian proxies in places such as Syria — to prevent the building of similar networks as those it established in Iraq — and an extensive and enforced sanctions regime.
Those tools started to hurt the Iranian regime and its allies. The increased pressure caused Tehran to act erratically, and the uncharacteristically provocative attacks last year were in large part symptomatic of its anxiety. Then came the killing of Soleimani, which was arguably a strategic, not a tactical, decision by the Trump administration, to reestablish deterrence and disrupt the cycle of escalation and counter-escalation.
Despite alarmism, the circumstances around the killing of Soleimani show that the current policy toward Iran is working as intended. The “maximum pressure” approach is tightening the economic screws on Iran and organizing regional efforts to increase pressure on the regime. The intent is not just to force Tehran to “return to the table” to negotiate its nuclear program, as it is often publicly stated, but to reduce Iran’s ability to dominate the areas around it. The pressure is working not because it was not tried before but because it follows numerous challenges — primarily popular protests and the growing nationalist sentiments that are overshadowing the sectarian tensions that once helped the regime — that the Iranian regime is facing at home and in the areas where it has built deep presence.
The “maximum pressure” is exacerbating these challenges for Iran. Also, Tehran’s attempts to mobilize Iraqis to end the U.S. presence in their country have so far failed, after Washington insisted that the presence now be more vital, to keep up the pressure against ISIS. Even Iran’s attempt to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies backfired: After Tehran announced that it would no longer comply with the nuclear agreement’s limitations on uranium enrichment, the Europeans put Tehran on notice and threatened to reimpose sanctions.
A major part of this effort is to convince the Iranian regime that the old policies that enabled it to fill the void, after the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2011 popular uprisings in the Middle East, are over. In this sense, the U.S. targeting of Soleimani could prove to be a game-changer for Iran’s role in the Middle East, not just because Tehran lost a shrewd operative but because the operation reminded it that it should not get too comfortable with its current behavior in the region. All the U.S. needs to do now is to press on with its policy, calmly and consistently, to limit Iran’s reach.