News reports say Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, was killed Thursday in a rocket attack near Baghdad Airport. U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about the operation, but the speed and precision of the strike clearly point to American forces.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the news, mainly because Soleimani was so important to Iran’s regional power. He reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani led proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and he worked hand-in-glove with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Islamist forces in Gaza. Soleimani was far more than a field general. He was a major architect of Tehran’s arc of influence, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He met directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the actions of their countries' forces in Syria. He was behind a foiled plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. When Iran-backed militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, their graffiti proclaimed Soleimani as their leader.
Iran will not let his death go unanswered. His loss is simply too important. But their retaliation, if it is large and provocative enough, could force yet another strike from Washington, raising the grim possibility of tit-for-tat escalation with unpredictable consequences and no sure end.
Neither Tehran nor Washington wants a full-scale war, but both sides have been ratcheting up the pressure since U.S. President Donald Trump led America out of the multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and began to impose harsh economic sanctions. Those sanctions have done more than cripple the Iranian economy. They have endangered the regime itself, sparking widespread demonstrations even in areas that were once loyal to the Mullahs.
The sanctions led to spiraling inflation, declining standards of living, and widespread rioting. The Revolutionary Guard has killed more than 1,000 demonstrators without quelling the unrest. Abroad, the regime feels growing pressure because it can no longer provide generous funds to its proxies. Meanwhile, the funding it does provide is a further irritant to Iranians suffering austerity at home.
Faced with these growing problems, the regime is understandably worried about its grip on power. That’s why its religious leaders and their Revolutionary Guard are so openly provoking the United States. It’s why Soleimani encouraged the embassy attack. For the first time since the revolution, Iran’s leaders have begun to fear that time is on America’s side, not theirs. If so, then it is better to provoke a crisis now than to wait. The big questions are: How far will they go, especially after Soleimani’s death? How will Trump react in turn? Could the conflict spiral out of control?
Trump and his national security advisers surely recognize how their sanctions on Tehran have strengthened America’s leverage. That’s why, before the strike on Soleimani, they responded so gingerly to a series of Iranian attacks.
Those attacks and America’s tepid response seemed to suggest Iran was winning, but that was always misleading. Although Iran can point to some tactical successes and to its emerging partnership with Russia and China, it is losing the strategic confrontation. Its position is steadily worsening as its economy sinks.
Tactically, America seemed to be losing because it cannot prevent Iranian attacks across the region. That failure compels some hard choices: Should Trump punch back hard, tolerate the attacks, or beef up U.S. power in the region, hoping to deter Iran? Trump had added some forces for deterrence and defense, but he seemed reluctant to go too far, fearing America could be dragged into yet another war. He focused on U.S. casualties (not those of allies), told Iran it would be held responsible for the actions of its proxies, and hoped to avoid American military strikes that could lead to tit-for-tat escalation.
Soleimani’s killing completely scrambles that dynamic, yet Washington would be wise to continue seeing the conflict as a war of attrition. As an experienced negotiator, Trump knows how those are won. The victor is not the side with the most money, men, or firepower. It is the side that can convince the enemy it can outlast them. That’s how Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam defeated the United States. That’s how George Washington and the Continental Army defeated the British.
Iran’s regime must understand this logic and the danger it poses. America’s current stance is not especially costly or difficult to sustain. Iran’s is. That’s why Tehran has been trying to force the issue and trying to provoke Washington. It follows that Tehran will be tempted to escalate sharply after Soleimani’s death. The regime’s leaders may figure a larger conflict will unify their population against a foreign aggressor and force Washington to seek a compromise, removing the harsh sanctions. They may figure Trump will back down rather than escalate.
Iran may be right about some of those calculations, but not all of them. It is certainly possible a military conflict would suppress dissent within Iran, at least in the short term. There is often a “rally around the flag” effect, though that usually fades as the costs of war mount. It is also easier to justify harsh measures against dissidents during wartime. Iran’s leaders may well be right that Trump would refuse to escalate, giving them another tactical victory.
Where the clerics and their generals are wrong, though, is in thinking Trump will relax economic sanctions without major Iranian concessions. His approach is the opposite of that taken by former U.S. President Barack Obama, who extended generous, cooperative gestures to his negotiating partners, hoping for reciprocity. Trump never does that. He believes in grabbing them right where it hurts, squeezing hard, and negotiating as he keeps squeezing. Just ask Beijing, Mexico, Canada, or North Korea. The Iranians are wrong, too, if they think more assaults on international shipping or oil refineries will force Europeans to side with them and not Washington. That simply hasn’t worked.
The only thing that might split the United States and Europe is an Iranian dash for nuclear weapons. That ultimate provocation would force extremely difficult choices about whether to undertake large-scale military action. The United States, its NATO partners, and Israel would all face their gravest military choice in decades.
The danger here is real—for all sides. It has grown significantly over the past week. What began with the killing of an American by an Iranian-backed militia quickly led to a U.S. counterattack on those forces, the storming of America’s embassy in Baghdad, and now the killing of a top Iranian military commander. The cycle of violence won’t stop there. Iran has promised to punish America for Soleimani’s death.
This escalation comes as financial and political strains on Iran are already tightening, and Tehran is searching for ways to break out of its bind. Its immediate goal is to avenge Soleimani and make America pay the price. Its larger goal remains the same as it has been for four decades: to maintain the regime’s grip on power and sustain its regional influence. What has changed are the rising pressures on the regime and the growing prospect of military confrontation with the United States.
Trump and his national security team must understand these pressures on Tehran. After all, Trump created them, and he did so for a reason. He must realize that America’s sanctions and force deployments have done little to stop Iranian attacks, like those on the embassy. But the administration probably figures (rightly) that America can wait them out, as long as the attacks don’t escalate dramatically or presage a nuclear breakout.
The question is: Can Iran tolerate this waiting game? Or will they try to save their regime by challenging America directly and escalating dramatically?
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org