On January 2nd, a US drone strike killed ten individuals on the Baghdad Airport Road. Key among them was the deputy chief of the Iraqi pro-Iranian paramilitary group the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (I.R.G.C.) Quds force General Qasim Suleimani.
Almost instantly, foreign policy experts, politicians, the twitterverse, and millions of concerned individuals were sent into a state of confusion followed by a great disgust or support for the actions taken by the Pentagon and Trump administration concerning the airstrike. Tactically, the deaths of Suleimani and al-Muhandis benefit the United States. With a single drone strike, the U.S. has removed two powerful enemies to American interests in the region while sending a clear message to Iran that the U.S. will respond to provocation in force. However, the strategy behind this attack is flawed or non-existent, thus negating the short-term benefits of the strike and creating long-term woes with Iran and its regional proxies. Essentially, Trump’s tactics work well, but the strategy that these tactics exist for is extremely risky—too risky when the stakes concern the fates of millions of people.
In any American discussion of this event, no tears should be shed for Suleimani and al-Muhandis. Regardless of whether one thinks their deaths benefit or weaken the geopolitical position of the US, these men are directly responsible for sowing terror and death across the Middle East. Muhandis, through his P.M.F. militia Katib Hizbollah, has engaged in radically violent activities that have lead him and his organization to be labelled as terrorists by Japan, the U.S., and the U.A.E.
Suleimani, in charge of the Quds force, has been in charge of promoting Iran’s interests in the Middle East through the creation and support of proxies in non-Iranian states and through covert operations. Roughly 600+ American soldiers have been killed in Iraq because of militias that he was directly responsible for creating and nurturing. Furthermore, Suleimani has been extremely prominent in supporting organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthi rebels, and the Assad regime, all of whom are responsible for thousands of civilian deaths. That is why, in the wake of Suleimani’s death, there were celebrations across the Middle East because thousands, arguably millions of Arabs suffered (directly or indirectly) because of him. Suleimani was a ruthless ideologue who was willing to take any action, no matter how barbarous, as long as it supported his radically anti-west, anti-Sunni, and nationalistic vision for Iranian, and Islamic dominance.
The tactics used by Trump are generally effective when contextualized in a deterrence or maximum pressure strategy often espoused by Trump himself. Viewed from these strategies, Suleimani’s death serves several purposes.
Firstly, the removal of these individuals deals a major blow to Iran, as they were key figures in promoting Iran’s foreign policy. Suleimani in particular was a capable, charismatic individual whose loss is equivalent to a soccer team losing its star playmaker. Without him, Iran will have much more difficulty promoting their foreign policy as it was Suleimani’s charisma and connections that kept Iran a powerful actor in regional politics.
Secondly, the strike has the potential to deter Iran from inciting further attacks on installations or citizens that are American or from countries allied to the U.S. Specifically, the Trump administration hopes to convey to Iran that even if it uses proxies to attack American or American allied entities the US will respond with an attack on Iran. Basically, Iran can’t plausibly deny involvement when attacking enemy facilities while hoping to get away with it.
The tactical advantages achieved by Suleimani’s death are laudable and significant, but their positive effect is likely to be limited while the costs will slowly outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, the strategy, if there even is one, in which these tactics exist for are ineffective in promoting American interests and values in the Middle East. Trump may have made it harder for Iran to act violently now, but he’s also made it harder for the US & Iran to reach a peaceful settlement later.
Since his inauguration, Trump has continually pursued a unilateral maximum pressure strategy towards Iran. The idea is that by turning up the heat on Iran, the current regime will either accede to Washington’s demands or collapse, leading to the rise of a more secular, liberal, and pro-American administration. Trump has pursued this strategy by dramatically leaving the Iran nuclear deal, implementing crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy, labeling the extremely powerful I.R.G.C. as a terrorist organization, and promoting anti-Iran rhetoric on social media and in speeches.
Soleimani’s death supports this strategy, as it weakens Iranian capabilities to project power in the Middle East and forces Iran to curtail attacks on its neighbors or face retaliation from an objectively superior power.
In the short term, this strategy has been working. Iran and its proxies' initial response to the strike was impotent and full of hot air. Besides some strongly worded speeches made and some relatively ineffective missiles launched, not much has happened. However, this situation only preserves a tenuous balance of power while sacrificing any chance for a stable peace.
Trumpian unilateral maximum pressure is unlikely to change Iran’s current behavior because it is too weak to bring down the regime and fails to provide a path for negotiations and lasting peaceful settlements. Trump may kill as many Suleimanis as he likes, but such men aren’t born in a cultural vacuum. Iran has been wounded by Suleimani’s death, but sooner or later the state will heal, a new figure will head the Quds force, and the strike will have been for little.
Short of a coup backed by American intelligence agencies or a direct invasion, both extremely unlikely prospects, the chance that the U.S. will unilaterally bring down the current Iranian government are slim to none. The Iranian domestic position is not weak enough to be legitimately challenged by its citizenry, and the regime has enough resources and grit to survive foreign or domestic challenges to its authority. Iran’s government has survived extreme pressure from Saudia Arabia, the U.S., and Israel while successfully weathering out popular mass protests since its establishment in 1979.
This need for the Iranian government to preserve itself in the face of extreme pressure explains why its civil nuclear program has been flirting with nuclearization for the past couple decades. It's hard for Nation A to defeat Nation B if Nation B can take down Nation A (or at least kill thousands to millions of people in Nation C) in the process.
In the wake of the Suleimani killing, Iran said it would not be following the uranium enrichment limits set by the J.C.P.O.A., the Obama-era deal agreed on by a plethora of nations that set limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifted sanctions. This deals a long-term blow to american foreign policy in the region because by not following J.C.P.O.A. limits, Iran reduces its nuclear breakout time: the time required for a state to create one nuclear weapon. As Iran reduces its breakout time, it reduces the timeframe in which the US and other global powers have to broker another agreement to prevent Iranian nuclearization.
It can be argued that a reduced breakout time doesn’t matter because the U.S. can economically squeeze or bomb Iran’s nuclear program away. However, if a state with the resources and size of Iran wants a nuclear bomb, it’ll get one. In the words of Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Bhutto when he was asked on the economic downsides of Pakistani nuclearization in the face of possible (and eventual) nuclearization, “ We [Pakistan] will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own [Atom bomb].”
Bombing nuclear facilities may work (similar to what Israel did with Iraq’s nuclear program in the 1980s), but it’s an extremely risky maneuver that can only delay, not prevent nuclearization. In addition to the legal and international response to such an attack, the U.S. would invoke the total furor of Iran in such a situation. Iran could respond by launching drone strikes on American or Saudi assets, initiate cyberattacks on the U.S. government and citizenry, or use their proxies to attack Americans across the globe.
Furthermore, the destruction of certain Iranian nuclear facilities may spew dangerously radioactive waste into the atmosphere, needlessly killing or wounding many Iranian civilians. The only lasting manner in which to prevent Iran from developing an atomic weapon is to create systems that incentivize Iranian compliance with nuclear non-proliferation, something made much easier when hostilities and peaceful intentions exist with Iran.
If Iran is to be coerced or guided into changing its policies to align more with liberal, and american interests, then it will require multiple regional and global powers to closely cooperate together to enact that change. Killing Suleimani did exactly the opposite of that.
Trump’s failure to tell NATO command about the strike may have been done because this was a unique opportunity to kill Suleimani, but it comes at the cost of creating further rifts between the U.S. and the most power European members of N.A.T.O. As Europe and Washington continue to argue over how to manage Iran, no coordinated policy will exist, thus making the policies of both entities more ineffective. This lack of cooperation means that Iran will have little incentive to change its global outlook, and gives Iran the opportunity to play N.A.T.O. and the US off each other to weaken both groups.
The move has also failed to convince the Iraqi government to work with Trump. Since October, Iraq has been convulsed with national protests against Iran that included a substantial portion of Iraq’s historically pro-Iran Shia community. Part of the reason Suleimani was in Iraq was to quell anti-Iranian sentiments in the country. However, with his death on Iraqi territory being viewed as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, the unanimity that characterized these protests are fading. Previously, the Iraqi administration under the pro-Iranian Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was on its last ropes, resorting to killings and violence to disperse the protests. In the face of the airstrike, the protests have lost their lustre, restrengthening Madhi’s position. This has allowed Mahdi and other Shia politicians to rebuke the American presence in Iraq.
This rebuke came in the form of a vote by the Iraqi parliament saying that American troops must leave Iraq. While the resolution was non-binding, and heavily opposed by Sunni and Kurdish M.P.’s, the vote still represents a clear dislike of American troops in Iraq. This damages American prestige by showing that the U.S. soldiers meant to protect Iraq aren’t wanted by Iraq. Moreover, it creates animosity and mistrust between the U.S. and Iraq which allows terrorist cells and (ironically) Iranian-backed militias to operate with more freedom in Iraq. While American soldiers won’t leave Iraq because of this action, Washington’s position has been visibly weakened in Iraq, allowing the same enemies the U.S. hoped to combat to instead gain power at american expense.
Finally, Trump’s take on maximum strategy is inefficient towards producing a beneficial change towards Iranian state behavior because it provides no clear avenue for Iran to find this pathway to change. A cornered animal always strikes, and if the U.S. keeps cornering Iran without allowing an escape route through diplomatic channels, then Iran will turn to violent, or pursue more aggressively anti-American policies to escape the pressure. Iran’s foes have seen what Iranian retribution in the face of pressure looks like. Throughout 2019, Iran and its proxies have been responsible for damaging foreign tankers in the strait of Hormuz, shooting down an American drone, bombing Saudi oil facilities, bombing American and Iraqi military bases, and influencing violent riots on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Iran may not resort to such measures in the current climate, but if desperate it may launch more of these attacks and with greater veracity.
The U.S. may slightly benefit from acting unpredictably towards Iran in the short term, but if Iran doesn’t even know what to do to work with the U.S. besides changing the most fundamental aspects of its governing system, it itself will act more sincerely on its anti-american threats. Can Trump’s strategy neutralize Iran? Maybe, but there are better strategies that carry a smaller risk for conflict that Trump fails to pursue. I hope Trump’s Iran policy works, but I don’t believe the Trump administration has the political will, or is sincere enough, to follow through on its statements of rapprochement and peaceful negotiation with Iran in a manner that will legitimately increase safety and prosperity for citizens of both states.
David Leshchiner is a second-year International Relations major in the School of International Studies. He is Editor-at-Large for the Agora.
Photo credit Wikimedia Commons (Author Unknown), Creative Commons