The Washington Post, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Politico and New York Times have all reported on the Trump administration’s decision-making process. They all say the same thing: Trump surprised large portions of his national security team with this move. According to the Times article, in listing possible responses to escalating tensions in Iraq, the Pentagon had included “killing Soleimani” as the radical option to make the other choices more palatable. When Trump took the most extreme option at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, “top Pentagon officials were stunned.”
Unsurprisingly, this means that U.S. preparations for any possible Iranian response are a bit tardy. The AP article notes: “The deliberations and Trump’s final decision came quickly enough that in the hours before the attack Thursday night (early Friday in Baghdad), contingency plans for a potential Iranian response were still being finalized.”
Pompeo has been grumbling about the lack of European support for the Soleimani strike. This might be because, according to my Post colleagues, “Pompeo expected European leaders to champion the U.S. strike publicly even though they were never consulted on the decision.” To put this as gently as possible: If Pompeo expected that response, then his expectations about other reactions to this strike are probably off-base, as well.
Writing in the New York Times, Michael Doran argues that Soleimani’s “departure will make Iran much weaker.” I wish I were as sanguine. Iran has already announced Soleimani’s replacement as Maj. Gen. Ismail Qaani. According to Haaretz, Qaani has “long been in a position of power in the organization.” Brookings senior fellow and Iran expert Suzanne Maloney writes in PostEverything that, as I had feared, Soleimani was not irreplaceable: “Soleimani was a creature of the well-developed bureaucracy of Iran’s security establishment, one that has weathered numerous losses of its commanders on the battlefield since the earliest days of the revolution.”
In April, the Washington Institute considered what a post-Soleimani world might look like. According to Michael Knights, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, which Soleimani commanded, would take a hit in its prestige but not a fatal one. Knights also notes: “In terms of information operations, killing Soleimani could be a success of epochal importance — but only if it is followed up with more-measured policies that show Washington’s ability to pause, reflect on shared interests with foreign partners, and let the dust settle.”
Speaking of dust settling, it is when we contemplate the dust settling and the limits of escalation that this situation seems even more disconcerting. On the one hand, folks like Shadi Hamid argue that the risk of a conventional war seems overblown. He may well be right, given the “OMG WWIII” vibe that one picks up on social media at times. On the other hand, in the days since Soleimani was killed, we’ve seen:
- The State Department urge all Americans in Iraq to leave the country.
- The United States and its coalition partners suspend its operations in the region against the Islamic State.
- Iraq’s parliament vote in favor of U.S. troops leaving despite Trump administration efforts to forestall the vote.
- Oil prices spike.
- Iran announce its complete departure from the 2015 nuclear deal.
- Iranian officials suggest that Israeli cities could be targets in response to the attack.
Call me skittish, but none of this makes me feel any safer. Nor does Trump’s reaction to Hezbollah and Iranian statements that U.S. military will be the target of any Iranian retaliation. Trump threatened by tweet to strike at 52 Iranian targets if that happened, including cultural heritage sites, in a “disproportionate manner.” That would be a violation of international law, and CNN’s Jim Sciutto reports that there is “widespread opposition” to the move within this administration. That has not stopped Trump from doubling down on the idea, however. The U.S. position on this is less than clear to longtime U.S. foreign policy observers; imagine the Iranians trying to decipher this signal.
The best-case scenario is that Trump’s bluster and Iran’s weakness translate into no retaliation serious enough for Trump to lose his temper again. The worst-case scenario is the repeated misinterpretation by U.S. and Iranian policymakers of the other side’s red lines.
In her column, Maloney notes: “Tehran has historically absorbed major blows and setbacks without immediately yielding to the temptation to strike back in indiscriminate or reckless style — instead choosing to nurture resentments and bide its time.”
It will therefore be unsurprising if nothing huge happens in the next few months or even longer. Maybe the regime will collapse during that spell. I hope so, because the alternatives are extremely worrisome.