It isn’t every day you can say a missile strike means things are calming down, but hey, it’s the Middle East. The rules are different.
Overnight Jan 2-3 the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s go-to guy for using paramilitary tactics to spread Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. As Soleimani was the lynchpin for much of Iran’s regional strategy, Iran immediately swore revenge. According to Iranian state media, that revenge began last night (overnight Jan 7-8) when the Iranians sent a few missile barrages into Iraq, ostensibly targeting US troops.
The damage was…underwhelming. At present there are no reports of significant damage nor reports of any American deaths. Iran does not shine in the world of conventional weaponry. Several of the missiles did not explode, and one reportedly missed by 20 miles. What the missiles were was loud and splashy and headline-grabbing. It appears the barrage was little more than an Iranian propaganda effort to convince their own people that Iran is not powerless against the United States…which it largely is.
Iran’s strengths, and how it usually engages the United States, are in places throughout the Middle East where the Americans have a large troop presence, or on the territory of America’s regional allies. However, for the last 15 years those troops have been withdrawing, and those relationships have been weakening. Even with recent troop buildups, US deployments in the region are down 75% from their peak. The United States simply does not have many targets in the region the Iranians can go after at all, much less with the sort of paramilitary forces which serve as the backbone of Iran’s power projection capabilities. It was those forces Soleimani commanded, and his skill at that command made him the second-most important person in Iran.
About the only way the Iranians can strike the US directly is in the cyber realm, but it’s hardly like Iran has been holding its cyber capability in reserve. Aside from logging a little bit of overtime, it is unclear what Iran’s cyber warriors can do to hurt the United States that is not already a daily occurrence.
Iran could use its itty bitty navy, combined with mines and missiles and its wildly outdated air power to “close” the Strait of Hormuz, but it’s unclear that the United States would care. The shale revolution largely severed the United States from Middle Eastern oil. And unlike Saudi Arabia or the UAE which both have Strait bypass pipelines, Iran is 100% dependent upon passage through Hormuz to sell its crude. Not to mention that Iran’s customers in East Asia and Europe would quickly and likely permanently switch to other suppliers. Iran closing the strait would be less shooting itself in the foot and more using disposable cutlery to gouge its own eyes out.
Iran seems to recognize this. It hardly means Iran won’t be looking for opportunities to make the Americans bleed, but they now know anything big enough to be a real win would trigger a massively disproportionate response. After all, the Americans have always believed that anything worth doing is worth overdoing – and that was when they cared about the consequences.
I have to admit, I have been rather impressed how Trump has handled this crisis so far. In killing Sulemani there was a far from insubstantial risk this would escalate. Instead, Trump has established a red line around the American withdrawal process while also eliminating the most skilled paramilitary operator in the world who is the individual responsible for the most American deaths in the 2010s.
Trump’s mini-speech to the American people had the normal economic and military boasts, but there was no vitriol. No heavy condemnations of either the Iranian government in general or the missile barrage in specific. No call for regime change. There was even a very direct noting of past (and perhaps future?) points of cooperation in the fight against ISIS. Trump seems to have suppressed his normal need to engage in one-upmanship and gloating and instead has demonstrated a degree of insight and subtlety that are not normally associated with the man. This is doubly notable considering Trump has fired pretty much everyone in his inner circle who can find Iran on a map.
A few things come from this.
One, this is the new norm for US policy, and not simply with the current president. The Americans have been withdrawing from maintaining the global Order for some time, and the combination of killing Soleimani and it not triggering a broader conflict begins the final chapter of the American withdrawal from the region. The United States has demonstrated its tolerance for bullshit is low, and its willingness to deliberately flout international norms is high. If a country chooses to pick a fight with America, everything up to and including the lives of the instigator’s top leadership is up for grabs. And the US really doesn’t care about any sort of regional stability the following day. For countries who are both anti-American and heavily dependent upon international oil trade – think Venezuela or Russia or China – that has got to focus minds.
Second, there is a massive opportunity here. Times of rapid shifting of force levels and operating norms are excellent times to start talks with a clean slate. (Former President Barack Obama tried doing just this with his nuclear deal with Iran a few years back.) If one wants to rewire the Middle East, if the United States and Iran want to have a meaningful negotiation about…anything, now is absolutely the time. It is far from clear the Iranians feel secure enough to do that, and it is far from clear that Trump has any real interest. But that doesn’t mean the opportunity does not exist.
Third, even if the Americans and Iranians dial back the tension and don’t engage in a broader conflict (which is still my bet) that doesn’t mean this is over. There is another player in the game who has a vested in seeing as much American and Iranian blood spilled as possible. The biggest threat to the opportunity for meaningful negotiations, to the American drawdown, and to Iranian security are all the same thing: Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis love having US troops in the region because it forces Iran’s attention to the United States, while providing diplomatic and security cover to Saudi Arabia. Once the Americans really do withdraw for good, the Saudis will be responsible for their own security, and the Saudis do not have a military worthy of the name. What they do have is a bottomless checkbook, a network of terror cells throughout the region, and an inhuman disregard for human suffering.
With US forces both shrinking in number and becoming more concentrated in location as the Yanks prepare for their final withdrawal while pointing bayonets at the Iranians, with the Iranians likely pausing their paramilitary operations both due to obsession with the Americans and the operational loss of Soleimani, Saudi Arabia has the means, motive and opportunity to launch the next ISIS. Never forget that Saudi security policy is responsible for an order of magnitude more American deaths than Iran.
From the Saudi point of view a fresh round of bloodshed that targets both the Americans and Iranians is win-win. It hurts their regional rival (Iran), and increases the case for the Americans to slow (or even reverse) their withdrawal. It’s a total dick move, but that doesn’t make it a dumb one.
My upcoming book, Disunited Nations, has an entire section on the Middle East that covers what happens next and why. You can pre-order it here