Soleimani: The Strategic Perspective
|General Soleimani in the NAC, a conference of generals of Iran. CC BY 4.0 Tasnim News Agency, 2013.
The idea that the assassination of Qasem Soleimani will unleash World War III is almost absurd—but focusing on whether Soleimani “deserved” it misses the point.
There’s been extensive debate in the past week about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. The rhetoric on one side is almost absurdly alarmist (“we’re heading for WWIII!”), while the other side misses the point entirely by portraying Soleimani as a “bad guy” whose death should be celebrated. Neither of these viewpoints is particularly insightful. Iran cannot start a third World War, but the world is full of “bad guys”. Whether a target is “bad” or not is a naïve question. The question before initiating any foreign policy action should be: “Does this make the US safer or otherwise further a strategic objective?” In the case of the Soleimani strike, this question either was not asked or some fantastical assumptions were made about what the strike would achieve.
Big deal, but no WWIIIFirst: “WWIII” is not in the offing. The two World Wars were the result of tight alliances of nearly matched power facing off. The power disparity between the US and Iran is almost comically large. What’s more, Iran has very few, if any, allies that would be willing to go to war with the US on its behalf. A war with Iran could happen and Russia could step in to confound US efforts, but neither the US nor Russia are likely to go to war over Iran in the way that Russia and Germany were willing to go to war over Serbia and Austria’s scuffle in 1914. Germany and Russia not only wished to support their allies, they were also insecure in the face of each other’s strength. The US and Russia, powerful as they are, do not really pose a direct threat to each other and have little reason to risk it all over a proxy struggle in the Middle East.
This is not to say we should not be concerned about the killing of Soleimani. A strategic analysis of the situation reveals only unpleasant outcomes. It is sometimes hard to determine what strategic goal, if any, the Trump Administration seeks, but it is supposedly to encourage Iran to return to the negotiating table, whence it should agree to tougher conditions than those in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the nuclear deal the US, Russia, UK, France, Germany, China, and the EU negotiated during the Obama Administration). If that is the goal, the Soleimani strike will fail miserably to achieve it. If the goal was more tactical, e.g. de-escalation, the strike will also fail miserably.
The strike and Iran's nuclear program
The reason Soleimani’s assassination is unlikely to force Iran to the negotiating table or prevent Iranian aggression is simple: Taking out individual political or military leaders has never succeeded in sustainably and significantly disrupting the operations of a well-organized group.* Targeted assassinations can pressure groups into reducing violence, but only under very specific circumstances. To coerce a party into negotiation or even de-escalation, violence must already be at or near the maximum the target can muster—and a single attack is rarely enough. Iran can wreak much more havoc than it currently has.**
Applying the sort of pressure needed to coerce Iran into surrendering its nuclear program could only be accomplished by war with Iran or an extremely credible threat of one, with an undeniably demonstrated willingness to actually go through with a full-scale invasion. This is because, at this point, Iran sees itself presented with two options: Total capitulation to the United States, which would be humiliating and threaten the regime’s survival (protests could well sweep it from power) or to pursue nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. The United States does not invade countries with nuclear weapons. They are the only viable option Iran now sees.
The idea behind the JCPOA was to slow Iran’s progress towards a bomb by 10 years. The point of that was to show Iran that it could prosper in peace and security without nuclear weapons and that if it pursued them again, it would have so much more to lose. During those 10 years, further negotiations might have achieved progress towards Iran’s permanent forsaking of nuclear weapons. Instead, Iran has now pulled out of the nuclear deal and will rush to get a bomb as quickly as possible. It is also angrier and more distrustful of the US than ever.
Four bad options for the US on Iran's nukes
The options now open to the US are 1) to tolerate an Iranian bomb, 2) attempt to coerce Iran into halting work on the bomb with further strikes and sanctions, 3) attempt to knock out the nuclear program with targeted strikes, or 4) all-out war (and invasion) of Iran.
Purportedly the whole reason the Trump administration abandoned the JCPOA was to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, so the first option is presumably off the table (and is, by the way, far worse than sticking to the JCPOA would have been). The second option is unlikely to work because Iran views US attacks as a threat to its very existence and nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of its sovereignty. It would take options three or four to prevent Iran from going nuclear now.
The problem is: Option three is fraught with uncertainty. Iran’s centrifuges are underground and difficult to reach. It may also have nuclear sites we don’t know about. Even if bombing its facilities were successful, this would only set back progress by months or, at best, a year or two, and it would strengthen Iran’s resolve still further (and further drain international support from the US side). Iran would still almost certainly end up with a bomb far earlier than it would have if the US had stuck to its commitments and honored the JCPOA.
The only way to ensure Iran never gets a bomb now is option 4: A full-scale invasion, which would almost certainly end up as the kind of quagmire we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but worse. Iran is more powerful than either of those countries and there’s no clear successor to the Iranian regime should it be toppled. It would be more deadly and costly than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Americans have no stomach for that, and Trump promised to get them out of the Middle East, not into a third war. This means it may be impossible to make the threat of such a war credible to Iran—meaning an actual war may be as necessary as it is infeasible.
The Soleimani strike has reduced the US’s range of maneuver, strengthened Iran’s desire to get nuclear weapons, escalated tensions and violence, alienated many US allies, and threatened to destabilize Iraq once again. More strategic, long-term thinking could have produced a better response to Iranian aggression and avoided weakening the US’s position. Here’s hoping such thinking prevails in the future.
*Groups that are little more than personality cults, relying entirely on a charismatic leader, have sometimes been brought down by “decapitation.” This does not apply to Iran by any stretch of the imagination.
**In fact, as I proofread this to publish it, reports are coming in the Iran has launched missiles at US installations in Iraq.