Qassem Soleimani had the blood of many thousands on his hands: American troops killed in Iraq, Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks, and untold thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and others dispatched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and its network of proxies. After years of lurking in the shadows, in more recent times he was given to smug, smiling selfies with terrorists across the region.
That a man this evil deserved his fate, a fate he authored for so many others, is not in question. The ability to carry it out was also an impressive American intelligence and operational achievement.
It was not, however, part of any strategy.
That much became clear in the aftermath of the attack when it was reported, first by David Cloud in the Los Angeles Times, that President Trump’s most senior national security advisers were shocked by his decision to authorize the operation. It had been included as an option on his briefing slides as a "throwaway," an extreme step designed to make other options seem more reasonable.
Subsequently, Trump and his advisers have offered a range of conflicting explanations for the strike: It was in response to the violent assault on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. Or it was to disrupt imminently planned large-scale attacks against American targets. Or it was to establish deterrence against additional Iranian attacks.
The last explanation may, in a way, prove accurate. A president whose decision making is impulsive and wholly unpredictable, even to his closest advisers, may well achieve a measure of deterrence against adversaries who do not seek a full-scale conflict.
Iran has undoubtedly been rocked back on its heels by this sudden blow. Soleimani occupied a unique place in Iran’s leadership, at once a strategist and tactician, the builder of a network of Shia allies in half a dozen countries, a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and an ideological inspiration.
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But he is not irreplaceable. And Iran will not be without tools to respond to his death. Which raises not moral questions, but strategic ones.
If Iran has learned anything about President Trump, it is the following: his one red line is attacks on American personnel and facilities. As Iran lashed out in response to crushing sanctions imposed by the United States following its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Trump chose not to react. Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, on a Saudi oil facility, and even the downing of an American UAV, passed quietly. In Syria, the United States was content to let Israel manage the threat posed by Iranian forces.
The U.S. strikes on bases of the Iraqi Shia militia, Kitaib Hizballah, following the death of an American contractor and the wounding of U.S. soldiers last week, and the elimination of Soleimani after the embassy attack, reinforce this conclusion.
So do Trump’s wild tweets Saturday night threatening to destroy 52 Iranian sites (including cultural sites, a war crime) if Iran attacks additional U.S. targets - hardly the de-escalation called for by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
So a smart Iranian response will be to avoid direct confrontation with the United States and escalate elsewhere, with U.S. allies and partners left to deal with the fallout on their own. For Israel, it could mean Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on Israeli facilities or citizens overseas and efforts by Tehran to stoke tensions between Israel and Russia in Syria, in hopes of facilitating greater Iranian freedom of operation.
But Iran has another opportunity at hand. They can try to exploit Trump’s other clearest, if contradictory, conviction: that he wants out of the Middle East.
Yes, as tensions have risen, additional U.S. forces have been sent to the region, to help protect U.S. facilities and to be prepared for emergency contingencies. But if Trump has been consistent on anything, it is his belief that the United States should not engage in additional wars in the Middle East, where U.S. forces face only "sand and death."
A patient, strategic Iranian response will be to generate pressure on the Iraqi government to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. Already, there is a move in the Iraqi parliament to vote for expulsion, amid many Iraqis’ outrage about U.S. military operations conducted on Iraqi soil without the consent of, or even informing, the host government. Stoking those tensions will not be difficult for Iran, wired as it is within Iraqi society.
Iran may not even have to act to achieve this objective. After the elimination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Trump seized on the achievement as a justification to abruptly reverse policy and declare the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, shocking the United States’ Kurdish and Israeli partners. (He later partially retracted the decision, leaving a smaller contingent of U.S. forces focused on protecting Syrian oil fields.)
No one should be shocked, then, if Trump, with a similar claim of victory in the wake of the Soleimani strike, announces the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. And once those forces leave - whether by an Iraqi or an American decision - the remaining U.S. troops in Syria could not stay without being deeply exposed. Whether a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, or civilian personnel working with the Kurds of Northern Iraq, could function safely would also be very much in question.
In any of these scenarios, the ironic second and third order effects of the U.S. strike on Soleimani would be a significant increase in Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, hardly a positive outcome for U.S. interests or those of its regional allies.
Were any U.S. strategists tasked to game out these scenarios and come up with mitigations to the abrupt change of policy represented by eliminating Soleimani? Of course not. And it would make little difference if they had. Trump doesn’t do strategy. He does impulse. For better and, frequently, for worse.
Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro