The post-Soleimani Middle East: 10 points to better understand the challenges

Can an escalation be avoided?

In this image released by the US Defense Department, paratroopers and equipment assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division load aircraft bound for the US Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, North Carolina on January 4, 2019. This deployment is a precautionary action taken to respond to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities. Thousands more US troops were ordered to the Middle East on January 3 after the US assassinated Iran's military mastermind and Tehran promised "severe revenge." AFP / US Army Photo / US Army / Spc. Hubert Delaney III

Ten main questions have emerged after the United States eliminated Iranian General Qassim Soleimani on Friday.

Did it restore the balance of deterrence, or did it pave the way for another escalation?

What happens next depends less on the assassination itself and more on how each actor involved perceives it. For the United States, the elimination of Qassim Soleimani was a way to restore the balance of deterrence after several signs of weakness––or at least of hesitation. Specifically, the United States had decided not to respond following several attacks in the Gulf that were attributed to Iran.

The decision to eliminate Soleimani can be seen as a way of forcing Iran to stop its strategy of controlled escalation. In other words, the US is telling Iran it needs to stop playing with fire or else it will end up getting burnt.

But will the Iranian be willing to bow to the message the US is sending? From Tehran’s point of view, Washington just eliminated the second most important figure in the regime. Soleimani was one of the most emblematic figures in the country and the architect of its regional policy. The Iranian regime will most likely perceive his assassination as an act of war to which it must respond proportionally. Otherwise, it would risk losing face and sending a signal of weakness to its enemies, including those within its own borders.

The killing of Soleimani has a deterrent effect for the Iranian regime, but will it be able to cash in on its humiliation without responding, especially when it knows that its ability to survive and stay in power will continue to be seriously threatened by American economic pressure?

Does Iran have the means to respond proportionally?

This is where things get complicated for Tehran. The Islamic Republic could escalate in various parts of the region through its proxy militias. But if it strikes the United States it would risk provoking a direct confrontation with the world’s super power––something it can’t afford to do. The Iranian regime is not suicidal. It will probably try to strike a balance between a strong response and something that the United States would perceive as an act of war.

But how accurately can Iran calculate its moves when its belief that Donald Trump wanted to avoid a military confrontation at all costs went up in smoke with the killing of Soleimani? In an interview with CNN on Sunday, the military adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, Hassan Dehghan, said, "the response will be a military one, and against military sites.” Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah said for his part that the US military will "pay the price".

Tehran could continue its game of brinksmanship with Washington, banking on the idea that the operation against Soleimani was a limited, targeted act and that the United States is not like to escalate further. But this would be an extremely risky bet.

Can previous examples shed light on the situation?

Over the past few years, the Israelis have carried out thousands of strikes in Syria against Iranian interests, killing many Pasdaran officers without provoking a strong response from Tehran. But Israel seldom claimed responsibility for these operations and no figure of Soleimani’s rank was ever targeted.

The closest parallel is probably the killing of Imad Moughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military chief, in Damascus in 2008. Iran and its affiliates attributed the killing to Israel and promised to severely avenge Moughniyeh’s death. Almost 12 years later, the response from Iran and Hezbollah has been relatively limited.

The loss of Soleimani, however, carries much stronger symbolism and cannot be fully compared to previous examples, especially since the United States claimed responsibility for the operation. The unprecedented nature of the event makes it difficult to predict what Iran’s reaction will be.

At this time, does the United States have a clear strategy?

This is the biggest question following the killing of Soleimani. American newspapers reported that the assassanition was planned on Sunday, December 29, one day after an American contractor was killed in an attack attributed to Kata’ib Hezbollah. The attack on the US embassy by pro-Iranian militias that Tuesday and Wednesday, following retaliatory operations against Kata’ib Hezbollah, was the final straw convincing the Trump administration to take action.

The United States has clearly decided to escalate tensions with Iran. But is it prepared to bear the consequences? Will Washington decide to escalate further if Iran responds? And if yes, how so? On January 4, Trump threatened to strike 52 sites in Iran "very quickly and very harshly" if the Islamic Republic decided to attack US personnel or positions.

Is the US president––who intended to leave the Middle East, along with its "useless wars"––ready to carry out direct strikes against Iran in the middle of a US election year? The move would undoubtedly cause an unprecedented escalation throughout the region between Iran and its allies and the United States and its allies. The question here is whether the United States is ready to commit to the Middle East in the medium term.

Has the United States lost Iraq?

Had it ever won it? The American invasion of Iraq looks like a series of mistakes that have greatly contributed to making the situation worse. The Iraqi parliament just voted to end the US presence in the country. Now, the decision must be made by the government. If confirmed, it would take some time to implement. Under these conditions, it seems very difficult for the 5,200 American soldiers in Iraq to remain there.

Does the Trump administration wish for them to stay considering that the president has made no secret of his desire to withdraw from the region? The departure of American troops would be a political and strategic victory for Iran. At the same time, it would deprive Iran of a scapegoat in times of crisis as well as of potential targets to retaliate against.

If American troops do withdraw, the Iranians will then be the sole masters of the country. They already are to a certain extent, but they will have to navigate responding to popular demonstrations, Kurdish independence and Sunni hostility alone. As a sign of the difficulties ahead, the Kurds and the Sunnis boycotted Sunday’s parliamentary session. Only 168 MP’s out of 329 attended.

What about American forces in the region?

The United States has less than 1,000 men in Syria whose presence cannot be taken for granted given that Donald Trump has said he would like to withdraw them from the area. If they leave, the proxies of the Iranian regime will be able to move from one country to another––from Iran to Lebanon––without being confronted by any adversarial military force.

On Sunday, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah said that only a complete departure of US troops from the region could offset the killing of Soleimani. On Jan. 4, Kata'ib Hezbollah called on Iraqi soldiers to move "at least 1,000 meters" away from areas where American soldiers are present by the following night, implying that these sites could be targets for attack.

As for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he admitted that US forces stationed in the Middle East may face reprisals from Iran. According to the United States Central Military Command, there are nearly 60,000 American soldiers deployed in the region. The largest base is al-Udeid in Qatar where 13,000 American soldiers are stationed.

Former President Barack Obama made disengagement from the Middle East a strategic goal during his administration, but was not able to fully carry it out because of ongoing developments in the region. Donald Trump, who has the same objective, could face the same problem, especially if he wishes to escalate the situation with Iran. At the end of 2019, the Trump administration announced that about 3,000 American soldiers would be deployed to Saudi Arabia to protect the region "from the hostile action of Iran and its proxies". Washington also announced on Friday that it will deploy an additional 3,000 to 3,500 troops to the region to reinforce security at US positions.

What are the consequences for the Gulf’s oil monarchies?

These countries might be at the forefront of Iran's response against the United States for at least two reasons. One: they house the largest number of American soldiers in the region. Two: there is no clear indication that they will continue to benefit from the US military umbrella in the event of an Iranian attack that does not target American soldiers. In other words, if a scenario similar to last September’s Iranian attacks on the oil giant Aramco in Saudi Arabia were to be repeated again today, the Sunni Gulf monarchies have no guarantee that the United States will retaliate.

A Saudi official told AFP on Sunday that Riyadh had not been consulted by Washington on the decision to kill Soleimani. As a sign of the Kingdom's concern about the potential consequences of this new escalation, the Saudi official emphasized “the importance of exercising restraint”. It bears mentioning that Qatar’s foreign minister visited Iran on Saturday and that the two countries have a cordial relations despite the presence of the American base on Qatari soil.

What about the fight against ISIS?

ISIS could once again take advantage of the current geopolitical chaos. The group is once again picking up steam in both Syria and Iraq. Yesterday, the anti-Jihadist coalition, led by the United States, announced that the training of Iraqi forces and the fight against ISIS would be suspended and the coalitions resources would now be “totally dedicated to protecting the Iraqi bases that host its troops".

What are the consequences regarding the nuclear agreement?

One should not overlook the fact that the nuclear issue is at the root of the US-Iranian escalation. The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. And Yesterday, Iran announced that it will no longer comply with the limit it agreed to on how many centrifuges it could have. According to experts, the move was well calculated. Analysts said that the decision proves that––at least for the time being––Iran does not wish to completely pull out from the framework of the agreement. The agreement’s European co-signers, who for months have been trying to convince Tehran to continue to adhere to the deal, are worried about the recent move, which could also result in an escalation. Neither the United States nor Israel will allow Iran to develop atomic weapons.

Is there any chance left for diplomacy?

In recent months Iran and the United States have sought to open a diplomatic channel through the Sultanate of Oman. But both powers have refused to compromise on their respective demands. France has also tried to mediate, but without much success. Some believe that if the current crisis results in a restoration of the balance of deterrence then it might be possible to re-launch a diplomatic initiative. This would mean that Tehran would have to accept certain American conditions concerning its regional policy. Under current conditions, and given the distrust between the two parties, there are serious doubts about the possibility of seeing such a scenario take place.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 6th of January 2020)

Ten main questions have emerged after the United States eliminated Iranian General Qassim Soleimani on Friday.Did it restore the balance of deterrence, or did it pave the way for another escalation? What happens next depends less on the assassination itself and more on how each actor involved perceives it. For the United States, the elimination of Qassim Soleimani was a way to restore the...