His tactical game has worked, at least for the moment. He has called Iran’s bluff, taken out one of its most valuable leaders and, so far, made the correct calculation that Tehran will not risk a wider war with the United States.
Decision-making in Tehran is notoriously opaque. For years, U.S. experts have argued about whether there is a moderate or pragmatic faction ranged against the hard-liners who have bedeviled American presidents. Who is the boss? The supreme leader, the president, or the top ranks of the Revolutionary Guard Corps? Is it worth risking a confrontation when there are “pragmatists” with whom we could do business? Because of these debates about the nature of Iranian politics, and fears about strengthening the worst actors on the Iranian political stage, successive presidents have hedged their bets on confronting Iran.
Trump tossed out that playbook.
Essentially, the real estate and reality TV guy from New York decided to take Iran at face value. Sponsoring Hezbollah? Check. Supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine in Syria? Check. Supporting Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel? Check. Supporting the Houthis against Saudi Arabia? Check. Attacking global oil supplies and shipping? Check. Targeting U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq? Check. Well, we can imagine the president saying, I’ve had it. Take out the guy who’s doing that.
That guy was Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, charged with managing Iran’s proxies abroad. Who was Soleimani? He was, without exaggeration, the mastermind of Iran’s regional strategy. He’s the one who perfected Iran’s Hezbollah model and built proxy armies from Lebanon to Syria to the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Yemen. He’s the one who, through those proxies, gave Tehran the deniability it wanted for every attack the Iranian government ordered.
The list of those orders is long, but consider the most recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq, the attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, or the attacks on U.S. soldiers and contractors in Iraq. In each case, Iran was fingered as ultimately responsible, but questions were raised. Who actually did it? The Houthis? Iraqis? Others? That doubt was a Soleimani specialty.
With one fell swoop, Trump discounted the doubt and told the world that if Iran ordered it, Iranians would pay no matter who actually carried out the attack. After the Dec. 27 assault on an Iraqi military base by Iranian proxy militia Kataib Hezbollah that left a U.S. military contractor dead and four U.S. service members wounded, and a subsequent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Kataib forces, the president was ready to act. He made the call on Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah.
Democratic and some Republican critics, as well as foreign leaders, have suggested that the U.S. strike was an act of war. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has decided to table a resolution barring the commander in chief from any further action against Iran without congressional authorization. On the other side, internationalist supporters have rejoiced that a president who has wavered between Bernie Sanders-esque “endless war” mania and Reaganesque global leadership seems to have mustered the courage to off Public Enemy No. 1 in Tehran.
The question that remains is whether Trump’s tactical strategy has worked.
Before the Soleimani killing, Iranian leaders seemed encouraged by Trump’s unwillingness to confront what appeared to be Tehran-sourced attacks. They undoubtedly took pleasure in his reticence in the face of a direct assault on Saudi Arabia; the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went so far as to taunt the president on Twitter after Iranian proxies attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, writing, “You can’t do anything.” Yes, said Trump via the U.S. military, I can.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that Trump’s actions “reestablish[ed] deterrence” against the Islamic Republic, which had been running amok in the region since the signing of the Iran deal in 2015. In an ideal world, that would be true. Few disagree that the regime in Iran was gobsmacked by Soleimani’s killing. And Iran’s retaliatory strike on al-Asad air base — an Iraqi installation that also houses U.S. troops — and other targets was weak; Iraq was notified of the impending strike, giving troops time to find cover, and it was apparent that the regime in Tehran was not trying to score U.S. casualties. Because having done so repeatedly over the past 17 years, it clearly has that ability.
Ultimately, however, Iran has other tools at its disposal, and other targets to hit. U.S. allies, partners and assets in the region are in the crosshairs. The new Quds Force commander could order killings that don’t directly hit Americans, merely American friends. Iran can keep testing Trump, betting he doesn’t want an all-out war before the 2020 U.S. elections.
Then again, Trump’s tactical strategy might work. Iran is weaker than it looks — its economy in shambles, a restive population, and a succession crisis in the offing when the current supreme leader dies — and the regime’s priority is not influence in the Middle East, calling the shots in Iraq, lifting sanctions or puppeteering its proxies. Khamenei and company’s priority is regime survival, and if they worry for the next one to five years that America could strike again, perhaps the Islamic Republic will indeed be deterred.