Soleimaini Episode and U.S.-Iran Escalation Dynamics

Updated: Jun 3

That the U.S.-Iran hostilities have come to this should not be surprising. There were many red flags in the dynamics between these two adversarial countries, particularly after President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office. The killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Quds Force under directions from the U.S. President, is a new low in the graph of U.S.-Iran tensions. What would have been the rationale and the process within the Trump administration that would have led to Trump signing on such a decision? What does it say about the Trump presidency that has often been seen as one, intending to take America out of burdensome conflict zones, expecting allies and partners in respective regions to pick up more slack? What did Trump intend to achieve from such a high profile strike, that was not covert, and hence left no chance of plausible deniability by the U.S.?

Since it was not covert, some kind of military response from the Iranians would have been expected, at least to calm public nerves inside Iran. That the Trump presidency intended its Iran policy, to be clearly distinct from that of his predecessor, was clear from the beginning, initiating and announcing a number of steps targeted towards economically and where required, militarily punishing Iran. This came to be called Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also called the Iran nuclear deal, which his predecessor negotiated along with other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Like any other deal, the deal that Obama negotiated with Iran could have been far from perfect. However, there is an overwhelming consensus among analysts that an abrupt and complete withdrawal was hardly the way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

If Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy was meant to corner Iran and forced the Iranian regime to kowtow to American dictates, the outcomes have been far from satisfying. The Iranians have rather push back through asymmetric means of hurting American economic and security interests in the Middle East. If anti-Americanism in Iran was a challenge for American foreign policy, Trump’s decision to take out Iran’s most popular and powerful military leader has created a new high in the anti-Americanism wave in the streets of Iran. Iranians have also come out protesting, accusing the Iranian authorities of misleading the public after a Ukrainian civil airliner carrying a number of Iranians was shot down, killing all on board. However, this episode can hardly be a succor for any American strategy to make the Iranian regime unpopular among Iranian citizens. Soleimaini’s assassination is most likely to be used by the Iranian regime effectively to fan the wave of anti-Americanism in Iranian streets for long-term consequences.

The U.S. and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war in the Middle East for long, and the trail of events has hardly produced encouraging results. Both sides have long accused each other of engaging in activities detrimental to each other’s interests. Lately, Americans have accused an Iranian backed militia in Iraq, for having killed an American contractor and injuring American citizens, and the storming of the American Embassy, forcing President Trump to take the extreme step of ordering the killing of the Iranian military commander. Given that the Trump presidency openly took pride in having killed Soleimaini, a military response from Iran was expected, but it was not clear in what form it will come. That the Iranians used missiles to precisely strike American bases in Iraq without leading to any American casualties shows that Tehran does not want to escalate it further to a full-blown war with the Americans. Moreover, Washington in response seems to be more measured now and has not shown signs of further escalation. As of now, what has transpired looks like the end of the latest phase of hostile actions. However, the risk of continued hostility and both sides coming at each other, regularly and finding different means of hurting each other’s interest remains, which could have larger consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East.

Just around the corner was the impeachment trial for President Trump at the U.S. Senate. Conspiracy theories have often accused past American presidents as well of, trying to deflect public opinion from their domestic problems by taking dramatic foreign policy decisions. Moreover, Americans are entering the campaign season for the presidential election later this year. So, how is the Iran issue going to play out during the primaries and the national elections? The Soleimaini episode might be short-lived in the American memories and be taken by a sense of ODTAA (one damn thing after the other) as has been a “new normal” in Trump’s America, but it will have long term consequences for the security of American interest in the Middle East.

Does killing Soleimaini align with the American strategy to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and eventually cut deals with the Iranians? Such decisions of taking out high levels officials have the potential of triggering more shadow wars, if not an all-out war, to the detriment of regional peace and security. To think that the U.S. could inherently sap Iran’s capabilities by taking out an Iranian military commander, who also enjoyed the reputation of being perhaps the most effective military commander against a terrorist organization named Daeesh which is also famously known as ISIS, might seem a tactical win but does not seem to be have been based on any strategic thinking.

The U.S. has created a high ceiling of Iranian resistance by taking down one of Iran’s most popular military leaders, taken to be second only in importance to the Supreme Leader himself. If such a high profile attack does not break Iran and fails in pushing them to kowtow to the U.S., what would be America’s next step? Does it need to repeatedly take such high profile targets; does it need to take out targets inside Iranian territory? What kind of a chapter does the Soleimaini episode write in the U.S.-Iran escalation dynamics? Iran’s influence on post-Saddam Iraq cannot be undermined, and further hostilities between the U.S. and Iran can only increase the risk for the American military to operate on Iraqi soil.

About the expert:

Dr. Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He was previously an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C and a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A


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