Iran’s risky brinkmanship led straight to US unprecedented action
LONDON - The killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw Tehran’s interventionist strategy through the use of proxies, revealed the limits of the brinkmanship that underpinned Iran’s strategy.
A January 3 air strike near Baghdad International Airport killed Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The Pentagon said the “US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani” on direct order from US President Donald Trump.
“A precision drone strike hit two vehicles at Baghdad airport,” a US defence official said.
The US Embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to leave Iraq.
Besides of the high-profile target and the timing of the attack, the operation apparently ran counter to what many experts expected from the Trump administration, which was seen as trying to appease Iran on the eve of an election season.
Behind the cover of plausible deniability, Tehran had escaped responsibility for its suspected involvement in attacks by using proxies, even when its culpability was almost beyond doubt, such as the attacks on Saudi oil installations last September.
Tehran did not seem to expect the United States to change course from military restraint even when a US contractor was killed in an Iraqi militia rocket attack on a US-Iraqi base in Kirkuk in late December or when Kata’ib Hezbollah supporters surrounded the US Embassy in Baghdad following a US retaliatory strike that killed 25 of its militia members.
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on January 2 alluded to a breaking point after the Kirkuk attack saying that “the game had changed.”
The United States became convinced that, in its hubris, Iran believed it could get away with even more serious provocations. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that Soleimani “was actively plotting in the region to take actions, the ‘big action,’ as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process.”
It was a US assessment that the role Soleimani was expanding in Syria and Iraq and was clearly a source of additional threats to US interests.
US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said the United States had “compelling” information of imminent threats from Soleimani’s plans that were deemed larger in “size, scale, scope” than in the past. If US officials did not act, “we would be culpably negligent,” he said.
“Is there risk? Damn right there is risk,” Milley said. “The risk of inaction exceeded the risk of action.”
For Trump, the action projected an image of toughness, a reputational shift that could help him domestically in an election year.
The risk inherent in the strike, its unprecedented target and timing added a new psychological twist in the US showdown against Iran. “I think the Iranians are shocked now,” Yoel Guzansky, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv think-tank, told the Associated Press. He said Trump restored America’s power to deter attacks by reinforcing the image of himself as a “crazy guy.”
Soleimani’s death grabbed the attention of the deeply polarised US political scene. “Wow — the price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically,” US Senator Lindsey Graham posted on Twitter.
However, US Vice-President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to run against Trump, said: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”
Pompeo told Fox News that he hoped Iranian officials would “see American resolve and that their decision will be to de-escalate, to take actions consistent with what normal nations do and, in the event that they do not, in the event they go the other direction, I know that President Trump and the entire United States government [are] prepared to respond appropriately.’’
Experts expect the next phase of the showdown to be more conventional warfare, even if Tehran chooses to spur its proxies to commit acts of terrorism.
The United States ordered more than 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East as reinforcements. Washington, which previously announced 500 troops to be deployed, said January 3 it is sending nearly 3,000 more soldiers to the region. That is in addition to about 700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne who recently deployed to Kuwait after the storming of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-backed militiamen.
Iran said after the killing of Soleimani that it had chosen its mode of retaliation. All scenarios are, however, uncertain. Iran must also weigh the risks of US counter-retaliation.
“War? Chaos? Limited reprisals? Nothing? Nobody really knows — neither in the region [nor] in Washington — because this is unprecedented,” Kim Ghattas of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Agence France-Presse.