If the killing of Tehran’s uber-terrorist unleashes global asymmetric war, with Iran’s proxies and sleeper agents hitting unsuspecting Americans at soft targets — airports, train stations, malls, hospitals, schools, etc. — around the world, then President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani will be viewed as one of the most senseless, shortsighted and irresponsible decisions ever made by an American president.
If executing the shadowy spymaster ultimately responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American service members in Iraq over the past two decades triggers a decision by Iran’s supreme leader to unleash Hezbollah’s formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles against Israeli cities and towns, or to launch an armada of mini-drones to destroy oil and gas facilities in Arab states up and down the Persian Gulf — acts of vengeance that would probably lead to full-scale regional war — then the hit on Soleimani will go down as one of the most thoughtless and foolishly provocative decisions ever made by an American president.
These scenarios are frighteningly plausible, though it would be out of character for the normally careful and calculating Iranian leadership to risk all-out war because one of its generals was killed, even one as iconic and powerful as Soleimani. Indeed, the most likely outcome of the Soleimani killing is that Iran rejects the apocalyptic options, bides its time and eventually resumes its gray-zone tactics against U.S. allies and interests under new Quds Force leadership. Still, one hopes the Trump administration factored these potential worst-case outcomes into its decision-making and has taken the appropriate measures to prevent and deter them.
But what if this chapter of the U.S.-Iran contest ends very differently — in negotiation, not confrontation? What if the unexpected targeting of Soleimani, combined with the unexpected attack last weekend on facilities of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, restored a measure of deterrence vis-a-vis Iran after the Trump administration opted not to respond militarily to a series of provocations that have escalated for more than a year? (These include rocket salvos against the U.S. Consulate in Basra and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and an attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais.) What if U.S. officials took advantage of the moment to ask a trusted third party — say, the Omanis or the Swiss — to test whether Tehran’s leaders were ready for a quiet diplomatic initiative to achieve what the White House has long said was the objective of its “maximum pressure” campaign: a better, broader agreement with Iran than the narrow nuclear deal the administration quit in 2018?
With tensions high and emotions raw, the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing may seem an odd moment to propose diplomatic engagement. But the very brazenness of the act may have so unnerved Iran’s leadership that negotiating with the Great Satan, an option Tehran seemed to reject as it sought to extend its influence from Yemen to Baghdad, might become an attractive alternative to the possibility of direct confrontation.
An episode from an earlier chapter of the U.S.-Iran contest may be instructive: the downing by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, killing 290. Though it was an accident, the tragedy convinced the revolutionary founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that America was about to throw its weight fully in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Fearful of facing the full might of the United States, Khomeini swallowed hard and accepted a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, an act so painful he likened it to drinking “a chalice of poison.”
Logic suggests that if Tehran blinked when confronted with an accidental use of American power, chances are even greater that it will blink when the use is purposeful, as was clearly the case with Soleimani’s assassination. Of course, the Iranians will test whether the killing was a one-off muscle-flexing exercise, like the missile strike Trump ordered against Syrian chemical weapons facilities in 2017, which in retrospect was a feint to cover a broader U.S. policy of noninvolvement there that allowed Iran and Russia to expand their influence. So the challenge for Washington is complicated and sensitive: to project its resolution to counter any Iranian retaliatory measure with overwhelming force, without triggering the very doomsday scenarios deterrence is meant to prevent, all the while giving Iran the diplomatic off-ramp of negotiations for a new agreement.
In that respect, Soleimani’s killing puts another potential carrot on the bargaining table beside the eventual lifting of economic sanctions — namely, a commitment from the United States not to use military force to threaten other top leaders or the regime’s survival itself. For Tehran, the price will be a broader agreement than the 2015 nuclear deal, one that not only corrects the flaws and time constraints of that accord but expands the agenda to include verifiable restrictions on both Iran’s missile program and its training, funding and arming of proxies, terrorist groups and Shiite militias in countries around the region.
True, 2020 is not 1988 — the Iranian people are not aching for peace after eight years of war, as was the case when the Vincennes downed the passenger jet, and their leaders may believe that stoking the embers of grievance is a surer way to stay in power than enduring the humiliation of negotiating with Trump. But if his administration’s new muscularity means Washington and its partners remain committed to stymieing Iranian mischief around the region, Tehran may conclude that a negotiated deal is better than open-ended confrontation. After all, for a regime that likes to have its faraway proxies bear the brunt of its adversaries’ counterattacks, the killing of Soleimani must have hit very close to home.
A U.S.-Iran negotiation can’t be conducted the way Trump has tried to do it so far, in the failed North Korea model of face-to-face, one-on-one, leader-to-leader summits. If it has any chance of success, such an initiative would require deft, nimble diplomacy, a minimum of bombast (read: tweets) and a maximum of discretion, and a carefully structured plan of action that fully engages our European and Middle Eastern allies.
To say that none of these have so far been the hallmark of Trump’s three years in office is an understatement. But the opportunity is so great — and the risks so fearsome — that all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, should hope the president, his Cabinet officers, and his foreign policy and national security advisers are up to the task.