Here’s a question: Would the world be a better place if the precedent established by the assassination of Qassem Soleimani was the normal way of settling disputes between military rivals? Instead of tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians or young foot soldiers dying for the political ambitions of some militant or regime, generals could just assassinate among themselves and let the rest of us live our lives in peace.
But that is not what is going to happen next. Soleimani brutally abused civilians across the Middle East for decades. He lived by the sword and it is only fitting that he died by the sword. But, in Iran and among many of its supporters in the region, he was celebrated as a war hero. This goes all the way back to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s — a war where up to 1 million people, mostly civilians, died.
The US has, in one act, assassinated the most recognized war hero of the Shiite resistance against “American imperialism” in the Middle East, as well as the second most powerful man in the second largest country in the region. The regime in Tehran and its Shiite proxies across the Middle East will have no choice but to seek to avenge the killing, at least symbolically.
However, the Shiite radicals, at least for the time being and unlike the Sunni Al-Qaeda and Daesh, do not have the same ability to organize significant attacks outside of the Middle East. Up until now, they also did not have much inclination to do so. This means that they do not have the capacity to strike back at American political and military leaders, like Donald Trump just did to Soleimani. Therefore, the brunt of any revenge attacks, if they come, will likely be borne by ordinary servicemen in operations or in military bases across the Middle East, by American civilians in the region who have traveled for business, research or tourism and, most likely, by American diplomats and embassies. Trump has demonstrated he is a “tough guy,” but he will not be the one suffering the consequences.
A war with Iran would be catastrophic for America’s standing and influence in the region and the wider world, which would move more countries into embracing China and would have similarly disastrous effects on America’s fiscal position. But Iran and their Shiite allies in the Middle East have no prayer of ever threatening the American core. This may well be a war with no winners — but the Islamic Republic in Tehran is guaranteed to be a loser.
Perhaps Trump hopes this will deter Iran from responding or escalating. If he is willing and able to seemingly randomly assassinate people who should have been untouchable, does Iran really want to provoke him any further? Or perhaps he is only concerned with the domestic convenience of a war with Iran in the context of his impeachment trial and the presidential election in the US this year, so he is actively inviting Iranian escalation to position himself as standing up for the US national interest.
Perhaps Trump believes conflict is a price worth paying if it helps bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime. But then what? Will the new Iranian government be any friendlier to America? Does anyone expect this will quell any of the fires that are raging in the Middle East? Does anyone expect that the continued chaos in the region will not have repercussions farther afield, including in the US?
Tehran knows that Trump may not have fully contemplated the implications of these various scenarios. He is, after all, the president that offered Tehran unconditional talks while at the same time threatening to overthrow the regime. This may sound paradoxical and alien to foreign policy pundits, who are used to seeing a clearly articulated “grand strategy” from every administration, but there is reasoning behind the poker face approach. Candidate Trump made it clear that he intends to be as unpredictable as possible, calling it the “doctrine of unpredictability,” giving him the leverage to negotiate and navigate without constraint.
For Tehran, this is a terrifying prospect. But, for Trump, unpredictability may be his greatest strength at this stage.
This article originally appeared in EurasiaReview on January 8th, 2020.