The immediate crisis following the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against two U.S. airbases appears to have settled down. However, the conditions for a future flare-up remain in place because the underlying conditions have not changed. Going forward, each side is likely to double down on its stated strategic objective, with Iran pushing for an end to U.S. presence in the region and the U.S. pushing for an end to the Iranian nuclear program. Further, the norms that had previously prevented an open exchange of fire between the two sides have been eroded.
Why It Matters: The events of January 3rd and 8th represent the first time since the skirmishes of the “Tanker Wars” of 1987-88 that the military forces of the United States and Iran have directly and openly exchanged fire with each other. For the last three decades, the contest between the two states has been a shadow war of proxy conflicts, plausible deniability, and non-military measures. The American decision to strike Soleimani and the Iranian decision to fire missiles in response removed many of the guardrails that have set limits on previous escalations of tensions. The Iranian decision to renounce cooperation with the 2015 nuclear agreement places back into contention an issue that had previously brought the U.S. and Israel to the point of war with Iran in 2012-13.
Business Impact: Markets have been largely taking a wait-and-see approach in order to determine the form of Iranian response to Soleimani’s death, and they responded with relief when President Trump signaled that the U.S. would not retaliate. To an extent, uncertainty in the Middle East had already been priced into the markets due to tensions in the second half of 2019. A significant or prolonged conflict would have an obvious negative impact on energy markets and regional economies. In addition, American and Western companies operating internationally or their employees could suffer collateral damage from any future Iranian proxy attacks against visible symbols of U.S. presence overseas.
In the immediate term, the resolution of the crisis represented one of the best possible outcomes: Iran has publicly signaled that the missile launches conducted on January 8th constituted the extent of their military retaliation to Soleimani’s death and President Trump’s White House address acknowledged Iran’s desire to de-escalate and spoke of finding mutually beneficial outcomes with no further mention of military action.
Going forward, both Iran and the United States are likely to double down on their desired strategic outcomes. Iran will seek to use all of the levers of its influence to drive the United States from the region, beginning with Iraq but also including indirect pressure on the Gulf states that host U.S. forces. Offensive cyber operations and deniable proxy attacks against civilian infrastructure in the Gulf could be part of that campaign, returning to tactics observed in the past. For its part, the United States will continue its maximum pressure campaign over the Iranian nuclear program, with President Trump promising additional economic sanctions even as he stepped back from military action.
Therefore, although both sides appear to be committed to non-military means, the points of tension that caused the most recent crisis are all still present and have arguably increased based on Iran’s increased non-compliance with JCPOA. It remains to be seen whether coming close to the brink of open conflict will have changed the risk tolerance of either side or whether the first acknowledged exchange of fires between the U.S. and Iran for 32 years will usher in a new period of low-level conflict.
The View from Tehran:
Iran has played Soleimani’s death for maximum strategic benefit. The messaging of the past 96 hours was aimed at various audiences within the country, the region, and around the world. Having been caught on the backfoot by the U.S.’s strike on Soleimani, the Supreme Leader allowed the IRGC to retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq in a calibrated manner, likely calculating that a strike with limited casualties would satisfy demands for vengeance while not prompting a response.
- Khamenei’s Decision: Ayatollah Khamenei is an inherently conservative figure and one who is above all else motivated by the priority of regime survival. Given their long-standing personal relationship, there is ample reason to believe that his displays of emotion of Soleimani’s death, including weeping over his coffin during the funeral on January 6th, were genuine and heart-felt. However, his expressed desire for revenge has been tempered by the overarching imperative to avoid a conflict that would have threatened the regime’s hold on power, either from within or without.
- Rally Around the Flag: Within Iran, the regime is seeking to use Soleimani’s death and their subsequent retaliation to build national unity following a period of significant domestic unrest. This has been emphasized by the extended period of mourning for Soleimani, days-long funeral spectacle, and the invocation of religious and cultural symbols associated with Shi’a martyrs. The death of Soleimani comes on the heels of a series of mass protests in Iran that originally began on November 15th in response to proposed increase in the price of gas, but which have since expanded to a wider challenge to the regime. Media reporting from late December suggested as many as 1,500 Iranian civilians have been killed as part of a regime crackdown on the protests, which have been characterized as the most serious challenge to the regime since the Green Movement of 2009.
- JCPOA as a Wedge Between U.S. and Europe: Iran announced on January 5th that it would cease compliance with the remaining provisions of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but would be willing to return to compliance if sanctions are removed. The nuance in Iran’s position highlights the fact that it is continuing to attempt to use the nuclear issue to drive a wedge between European signatories to the agreement and the United States, which unilaterally walked away from the treaty in May 2018.
- Regime Dynamics: Soleimani was a high-profile figure within Iran, but his outsized influence on Iranian foreign policy also created friction with other stakeholders in the regime, including leaders of the conventional military forces, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the intelligence services. He was one of few genuinely strategic thinkers in the Iranian national security apparatus and the one with the most extensive and deepest connections within the Arab-speaking world. His replacement as commander of the Quds Force is his long-time deputy who will be familiar with the day-to-day operations of the IRGC’s external operations arm but will not have the stature or the network of Soleimani. As a result, other stakeholders may jockey to move into the vacuum created by his death.
The View from Washington:
The present challenge for the U.S. is how to maintain both a deterrent posture and establishing the means to avoid further escalation. The policy on Iraq going forward will have to balance President Trump’s desire to disengage from the conflict while not creating the appearance of having been pushed out by Iran.
- Escalate to Deter: President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani reflected an “escalate to deter” strategy, using a sudden and unexpected escalation of force during a crisis in order to reestablish deterrence after previous provocations in 2019 had gone largely unanswered. However, deterrence is only as good as the last demonstration of a willingness to respond. The decision to not respond to Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes reflected a pragmatic decision to de-escalate.
- National Security Decision-Making: Nearly three years into his presidency, Donald Trump feels increasingly confident making national security decisions based on his own instincts. The original coterie of experienced national security establishment members such as Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster who had populated the Situation Room during the early days of the administration have largely resigned or been fired and replaced with individuals of lower profile and/or proven loyalty. Although the mechanisms of the formal interagency process continue to function, President Trump increasingly makes decisions based on a network of informal advisors and media sources.
- Domestic U.S. Considerations: The decision to launch the strike on Soleimani came during a period of high political tension in Washington, as it had been expected this month that the U.S. Senate would begin a trial in response to articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives in December. The Soleimani strike is being taken up by both Trump’s supporters and opponents as evidence of either his credentials as a decisive commander-in-chief or his unsuitability for office, depending on their perspective. Congress has proposed votes to limit President Trump’s independent authority to initiate hostilities with Iran, but this is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate. Separately, the first voting in the Democratic primary is less than one month away, and a sudden shift in focus to national security issues could have results that are difficult to predict, either boosting those with national security credentials (such as former vice president Joe Biden and military veteran Pete Buttigieg), or rallying support among primary voters for anti-war (such as Bernie Sanders).
Third-Party Perspectives and Responses:
- Iraq: The strike at Baghdad International Airport that killed Soleimani also killed the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front, a coalition of militias that forms a part of Iraq’s official security apparatus. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has condemned the attack as a “massive breach of sovereignty” and an “aggression on Iraq”. Iraq’s parliament passed a draft law on January 5th calling for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil, but the law was non-binding and the session had been boycotted by most of the Sunni and Kurdish members of the legislature. Iranian presence has also been the recent target of Iraqi ire, such as in November when a crowd of Iraqis burned down the Iranian consulate in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf, and the Iraqi government will likely try to play both sides against each other to maximize its leverage for military and financial support. Withdrawal from Iraq would mean that the remaining American forces in Syria could no longer be supplied or supported through the western desert of Iraq and would therefore also have to be withdrawn. Iran will likely seek to use all its considerable levers of influence in Iraq to convince the government to see through the expulsion of American forces. The United States leaving Iraq and Syria due to Soleimani’s death would be a fitting legacy from the Iranian perspective and a perverse one from the American perspective given that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemembers in Iraq (and thousands of Iraqi civilians) through his support for Shi’a militias in the mid-to-late 2000s.
- Europe: Statements from European capitals emphasized the need for restraint and de-escalation. French President Macron is likely to view this event as further justification for his proposals that the EU develop a defense and security apparatus independent of NATO in order to avoid being entangled by potentially reckless American actions. Iran will likely continue to use this event as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe on the nuclear program and other issues, and their chosen retaliation was likely calibrated at least in part to allow them to continue positioning themselves as a responsible actor. For his part, Trump is urging the European signatories to join him in walking away from the JCPOA in order to increase Iran’s international isolation.
- United Kingdom: The British government has tried to tread a fine line in its responses to the strike, with Prime Minister Johnson calling for de-escalation while also stating that he “will not lament” the fact that Soleimani is dead. The U.K. is likely trying to balance its desire to remain aligned with France and Germany in trying to keep the JCPOA together with its traditional close alliance with the United States and Johnson’s personal relationship with President Trump.
- Russia: Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the American strike, which removed a valuable interlocutor for Russian forces in Syria. Russian troops and Iranian-backed militias in Syria had periodically found themselves with diverging interests in their campaign to support the Assad regime, and Soleimani performed a critical function in directing the activities of those militias to ensure that both Russia and Iran achieved their strategic objectives in Syria. A potential American withdrawal from Iraq and Syria would advance Russia’s interest in establishing itself as the indispensable foreign power in resolving the crisis in Syria and within the region more broadly.
China: In line with their long-standing principle of non-intervention and their own interest, China condemned the strike, but the response was muted overall. Chinese interests are primarily economic and tied to ensuring a steady supply of petroleum. One of China’s newest and most capable naval destroyers recently participated in trilateral naval exercises with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman. Although such exercises primarily serve a strategic messaging and diplomatic function, they do signal an emerging alignment of interests between the three states that would be significant for the response to any future crises.
Michael S. Rogers Senior Advisor, Washington, D.C.
Michael Rogers advises in the areas of cyber security, privacy, geopolitics, technology and intelligence as well as crisis management.