The surprising and aggressive step America took when it decided to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was welcomed enthusiastically in Israel. There was a lot of praise for U.S. President Donald Trump in local television studios this weekend, as well as hope for the return of the era of American greatness in the Middle East – and even, on the margins, dreams of a new regional order in which the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran would be speedily toppled.
But the strategic picture may well be a bit more complicated and dangerous than the rather gleeful tone that occasionally dominated the airwaves.
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The Trump administration’s regional policy for the last three years hasn’t reflected a consistent line of thinking, but rather flip-flops, experimentation and mistakes. About 18 months ago, Trump quit the Iranian nuclear deal, as he had promised to do during his campaign. Later, he adopted the maximum pressure approach, in which he imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran and on foreign companies that traded with it.
Yet the desired outcome – an Iranian capitulation to a new nuclear accord with more demanding terms, which might even include restrictions on its regional subversion – wasn’t achieved. On the contrary, ever since May, Tehran has responded with a large-scale campaign of attacks on the oil industry in the Persian Gulf, and sometimes even with attacks on American interests.
For many months, Trump responded with restraint, due mainly to his fears of getting embroiled in a war. Israel was disappointed by this lack of an American response, as evident from recent statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.
But last week, the Iranians went too far. The killing of an American citizen in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, followed by a mob storming the American Embassy in Baghdad (in response to an American retaliatory strike that killed 25 Shi’ite militiamen), led to a sharp change in the administration’s position.
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Trump stood by his red line – zero tolerance for killing Americans. And Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, paid for his arrogance with his life. This arrogance was evident both in his decision to escalate his actions against the Americans and in his insistence on moving openly, as if he were invulnerable.
Far from being careful to stay under the radar, the Iranian general appeared in public frequently when his plane landed at airports around the Middle East. More than once, he even commemorated these visits with photographs that were disseminated on social media. American airstrikes hit his convoy shortly after he landed in Baghdad.
Unlike Soleimani, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been far more cautious, and he knows why. Now, he will doubtless be even more careful, given the similarity between American and Israeli attitudes toward the tactic that Israel called “pinpoint preventions” when it developed and perfected it during the second intifada.
According to American media reports, Trump was given several options for an intensified response against Iran. To the surprise of some of his advisers, he chose the most aggressive one, which anti-Iran hawks had long been pushing for. Soleimani, who was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of people – including Americans and Israelis, but primarily Sunni Muslims – was assassinated.
This was a justified and appropriate decision – certainly from Israel’s perspective. But it doesn’t put an end to the American-Iranian conflict, which is liable to involve Israel as well. The threats of vengeance from Tehran – which have so far focused on America and largely ignored Israel – should be taken seriously.
The most likely theater for an Iranian response is Iraq, where a battle for influence is already taking place between Washington and Tehran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might also be hit.
The assassination is a blow to the entire “axis of resistance” led by Iran, which also includes Hezbollah, Shi’ite militias in countries throughout the region and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad. Soleimani’s removal will apparently erode the effectiveness of the intimidating network of terrorist and guerrilla groups that he built and whose activities he largely coordinated.
In 2008, senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus (a hit from which Soleimani escaped by the skin of his teeth). Iran and Hezbollah threatened to avenge his death – as well as the assassination of several Iranian scientists involved in Tehran’s nuclear program – with attacks on Israeli targets. But most of those attacks were thwarted or disrupted. The reason why, in hindsight, is that after Mughniyeh’s death, there was no Mughniyeh left to avenge him.
The same may well happen after Soleimani’s death, though it would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of Iran’s intentions. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Soleimani’s assassination made the region much safer for Americans. That may be true in the long-term, but a few hours after he made that remark, the State Department ordered all Americans in Iraq to urgently leave the country.
It’s reasonable to assume that the Americans warned Israel in advance about the approaching assassination. In retrospect, Netanyahu’s statement on Thursday, just before he left for a visit to Greece (“Very dramatic events happen in our region. We’re following them closely and are in constant contact with our great friend, the United States”), seems like a slightly-too-explicit hint about what was going to happen in Iraq a few hours later.
After the assassination, the prime minister rightly ordered his ministers to maintain radio silence, so as not to tempt the Iranians to put Israel in their crosshairs. And so far, the politicians have demonstrated uncharacteristic restraint. At the start of the third election campaign of the past year, this, too, deserves praise.