The U.S. airstrike that killed the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani is a dangerous and reckless act that is almost certain to trigger an escalation of violence in the Middle East, including the possibility of retaliatory Iranian actions against U.S. forces in the region.
There is also likely to be backlash from Baghdad. The bombing killed Soleimani as well as Abu Mahdi al‐Muhandis, an important Shia paramilitary leader in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units with close ties to Iran. (Note: Iran’s increased influence in Iraq is a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the subsequent decisions of the Bush administration.) U.S. forces are in Iraq with the permission of the Iraqi government, which has grown increasingly infuriated by repeated U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi territory that lacked the approval of the sovereign government there. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul‐Mahdi has already condemned the attack as a violation of the terms of the agreement authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq. This could make U.S. troops and personnel, as well as innocent civilians caught in the cross‐fire, even more vulnerable in the potential fallout.
Trump came into office with an Iran that was effectively denuclearized, plus a newly opened U.S.-Iran diplomatic channel to continue to improve relations following the JCPOA. Thanks to the president’s warrantless withdrawal from that deal and the administration’s incoherent maximum pressure “strategy,” that diplomatic channel is no more, and Iran has resumed its nuclear activities and ratcheted up its violence in the region.
While we can expect Iran to pursue retaliatory actions of some kind, the leadership in Tehran knows they are outmatched by the United States, so they are likely to employ tactics they expect will be below the threshold of what would prompt a major U.S. military response inside Iranian territory. Still, this could trigger a sharp uptick in violence across the Middle East, to the detriment of regional stability, U.S. interests, and global peace and security.
Although President Trump boldly stated in his last State of the Union address that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” with this act he has likely further drawn the United States into the morass of Middle East conflict. The United States has been attacking the Middle East every year for 29 years. As president, Trump has broadened ongoing bombing campaigns across multiple countries and, in his first two years, increased the U.S. troop presence in the region by more than 30 percent. He has ordered an additional nearly 15,000 deployed since summer 2019.
For decades, this approach has failed. Its continuation is fueled by unthinking policy inertia, an erroneous belief that U.S. partners in the region are vital for U.S. interests, and an irrational fear of Iran. As I put it last May, “most of the political establishment in Washington perceive[s] the threat from Iran to be serious when in fact it hardly exists at all.”
Americans must begin to appreciate how peculiar it is for a country like ours to be so maniacally obsessed with, and terrified by, a country like Iran. The United States is a global military juggernaut whose core national‐security concerns are rendered rather trivial due to its outsize capabilities and its uniquely protective geography, reinforced even further by a reliable nuclear deterrent. Iran is a third‐rate military power in a tough neighborhood half a world away. It poses no direct threat to us. Iran’s main regional rivals possess conventional and nuclear capabilities that can deter Iran quite sufficiently. Washington’s phobia of the supposed threat of an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 30 percent of the world’s crude oil flows, is mostly overheated babble. A sincere attempt would be damaging to Iran’s own economic self‐interest, not to mention its security, as retaliation would surely be swift. Additionally, Iran’s much ballyhooed support for non‐state actors, mostly Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen, does not present a real threat to America. Those groups have local concerns. Hezbollah and Hamas are almost exclusively focused on Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen are a nationalist movement. These are not transnational terrorist groups spending time trying to hatch 9/11 style plots against America.
How is it that the United States of America can get whipped up into such a hysteria over such a weak, distant, and hemmed in Iran? Much of Washington seems unable to properly assess risk. Threat perceptions on Iran are fueled by an outdated enemy image where Iran plays the role of the villain, but presents no objective direct threat to this country.
At this point, neither side appears willing to back out of this destructive round of escalation. That bodes ill for all parties. If the White House isn’t prepared to find a way to reduce tensions and develop a strategy that will reliably avoid war and serve U.S. interests, Congress must (but probably won’t) step up to assert its prerogatives over the executive branch’s war powers.