Deep Breaths As We Go From Crisis to Status Quo
History will judge the long-term impact of the death of Qassem Soleimani. In the short-to-medium term, let’s step back from the fear-mongering and instead focus on the geopolitical factors that make the large-scale war many fear unlikely.
For Iran to provoke such a war is suicide. They have no incentive to escalate to that level, though they may conduct attacks consistent with previous decades. Those attacks, and the U.S. responses, will in the current political and media climate (#WWIII was trending on Twitter and frightened youngsters crashed the Selective Service website worried a draft is forthcoming) consume our attention far beyond their actual impact. But they will in reality cycle inside the rough rules of what diplomats call escalation dominance, the tit-for-tat trading of controlling the moment, trying to stay under the victims’ threshold of response. Emotion is for amateurs.
The most recent series of events bear this out. According to our government officials, Iran and/or its proxies have fired on U.S. bases in Iraq multiple times, initiating the current escalation that included Soleimani’s assassination and this week’s missiles launched from inside Iran at American bases at Al Asad and in Erbil. Yet according to one long-time regional observer, “This doesn’t yet feel like a major escalation. Iran can claim it took revenge. Feels more like an escalation to deescalate.” Among other signals, the missiles’ long flight time, over some 200 miles, gave obvious warning to areas already on alert.
Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran was finished fighting and was not actively pursuing further escalation. Trump undertook no immediate counterattack, and in a speech spoke only of further economic sanctions alongside some vague thoughts on future agreements. The two countries’ actions add up to a collective “we’re done if you’re done.”
This was all to be expected. Iranian leaders know their country can be destroyed from the air. As only a regional power, it suffers from a massive technological disadvantage in any direct conflict with the U.S. It is far beyond the days in which Marines were driven from Somalia after “Black Hawk Down” in 1993, or out of Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks by Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Unlike years past, America is willing to take a punch to throw back two. Iran’s political leaders are aware of the limits of asymmetric warfare in this world, especially because America’s lack of dependence on Persian Gulf oil means 2020 is not 1991.
Iran, under sanctions, is near totally dependent on what oil it can export. Oil requires massive infrastructure, all of which can be bombed. Iran’s military operates in large part out of fixed sites. Its navy is small and its bases can be destroyed from the air, its harbors mined from above and below the water. Iran’s military strength is ranked 14th globally below Brazil and Italy; the U.S. is ranked first.
I’ve been to Iran. I saw the martyrs memorial outside the main marketplace in the holy city of Mashhad, with the names of Iranians who died fighting the U.S. in Iraq from 2003 forward. Soleimani has already joined the pantheon of martyrs as of this week, but he is neither the first nor the last soldier to die in this ongoing long war.
Iran’s government, meanwhile, is a tense coalition of elected civilians, unelected military, and theocrats. None would stay in power following a major war. They face an almost schizophrenic population, happy to chant “death to America” but equally open to the idea—albeit on more liberal terms than five American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have been willing to offer—of finding a way out from under sanctions that would release their potential and open them to the world.
Iran understands its limits. Think about the provocations it has been forced to endure without escalation: U.S. troops landing in-country in a failed hostage rescue in 1980; U.S. support for Iraq in using weapons of mass destruction and the provision of intelligence that allowed the Iraqis to rain missiles on Iranian cities in the 1980s; the U.S. shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing some 300 innocents in 1988; and the U.S. invading and occupying Iran’s eastern border (Iraq 2003) and western approaches (Afghanistan 2001) and maintaining bases there.
In 2003, when Iran reached out following initial American military successes, George W. Bush flippantly declared them part of an Axis of Evil. U.S. forces then raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraq and arrested several staffers in 2007. The U.S. has kept crippling economic sanctions in place for decades, conducted the Stuxnet cyberattack in 2010 to destroy Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and initiated another cyberattack in 2019—never mind what the Israelis have done covertly. Nothing led to a wider war. Soleimani died in context.
Iraq, politically and geographically in the middle, has every reason to help calm things down. Despite the rhetoric, the Iraqi government needs the U.S. in situ as a balance against Iranian hegemony and as a hedge against the rebirth of ISIS. The recently passed, non-binding resolution for U.S. troops to leave Iraq carries no weight. It was passed by a divided government in caretaker status, applies only to the withdrawal of the anti-ISIS joint task force, and lacks both a timetable to happen and a mechanism to enforce it. Even that symbolic vote was boycotted by Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish (so much for losing the Kurds as allies) legislators, illustrating the difficulties a coalition Iraqi government faces in getting anything done.
Should Iraq somehow find a way to move against the U.S. troop presence, promised American sanctions on Iraqi oil would devastate the economy and likely topple a government already besieged by its citizens of all backgrounds for failing to provide necessary basic services. The $200 million in direct aid the U.S. paid Iraq last year is a tiny portion of the billions flowing in from Washington via loans, military assistance, training funds, etc. That all would be missed. Iraq needs a relative state of peace and stability to hold on. It will make ceremonial anti-American actions to appease its Shia majority and make it appear it is not being ordered around by the Americans it loves to hate, but the U.S. is not be driven out of Iraq.
America itself has no reason to escalate any of this into a real war. Iran is strategically more or less where it has been for some time and there is no U.S.-side driver to change that now. Chaos in Tehran serves no purpose, and war would spiral the nation into a series of internal struggles spiced with fissionable material that has no place in a foreign policy calculus in an election year at home. Trump gets the political credit (84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of the strike) from his base for a tough-guy move with none of the sticky problems a wider conflict would create. His post-missile attack remarks position him as open to new talks of some kind.
To accept the U.S. will start a major war assumes a fully irrational actor unfettered. Many people want to believe that for political purposes, but the hard facts of the last three years say that when it gets to this strategic level, Trump has not acted irrationally. Same this time: he did not act irrationally, or even provocatively, in the aftermath of the Iranian missile launches.
It’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway. Forget the tweets; they have never added up to much more than fodder for pop psychologists, impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts. Absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. See North Korea, where Trump was supposed to start World War III two years ago, or the trade wars that were to destroy the global economy, or any of the other pseudo-crises. In sum, no new wars. Economy chugging along. Trump manipulating Democrats into practically putting Che-style Soleimani T-shirts up on Etsy.
The current commander-in-chief is likely to start a war? He’s the only recent president who hasn’t.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.