“Ah, Kirk, my old friend. Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space.” — Khan Noonien Singh, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
In the early fall of 2013, not long after returning from my last deployment to Iraq, I spent a Saturday morning engrossed in a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins. “The Shadow Commander” was a profile of Major General Qasem Soleimani, a somewhat shadowy figure commanding Iran’s Quds Force and responsible for sowing much of the instability across the region since ascending to the role in 1998. Few Americans had heard of Soleimani, but his name was well known to me. Soleimani’s network of Shiite militias and fighters – resourced, trained, and armed by Tehran – had killed hundreds of coalition troops with deadly explosively formed penetrators, a gruesome weapon of Iranian design. It was difficult to serve in Iraq and not encounter his name at some point.
So, when Soleimani found himself on the business end of a missile strike recently, it came with a sort of “surprised, not surprised” feeling. Surprised, because such an act carries a certain amount of risk; not surprised, because Soleimani’s actions put him under UN sanction since 2007 and listed as a terrorist since 2011. A trusted ally and advisor to Hezbollah, he was present in Lebanon to oversee the 2006 war between Israel and Iran’s militant proxies. Soleimani himself was instrumental in forging the alliance between Moscow and Tehran that proved essential to propping up the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War. With that conflict in hand, he’d returned his focus to combatting American influence in Iraq. These days, you don’t tend to live long with that kind of target on your back.
News of Soleimani’s death brought out the usual suspects – C-list celebrities and washed-up athletes, national security “experts” who like the sound of their voices more than doing their homework, and an inordinate amount of keyboard histrionics driven more by political bias than actual knowledge. And, frankly, knowledge here is the key to understanding the situation and what it might foretell – knowledge of history, knowledge of culture, and knowledge of how things work.
Our history with Iran is, well… complicated. Leaving behind the centuries-long collapse of the Persian Empire – which is even more complicated – as well as our role in the 1953 coup, the 1979 revolution, and a number of other incidents over time, there aren’t a lot of good feelings in Tehran left to bank on. Iran’s desire to extend their sphere of influence into areas once dominated by the former empire is no secret, but not widely understood or appreciated. Similarly, Soleimani’s role as an instrument of Iranian foreign policy in pursuit of that goal is no secret, but, again, not widely understood or appreciated. His orchestration of recent attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq, as well as the attempt to storm the American embassy in Baghdad, was widely reported by Reuters in the wake of his death. The fateful meeting with his militant deputies at Baghdad International Airport has been reported by some as “business as usual” and by others as a planning summit to approve the escalation of attacks against U.S. targets in the region. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference between the two when it involves Soleimani.
In the same vein, no one should be that surprised that the President ordered the attack that led to Soleimani’s death. While the action had been considered by the previous two administrations, that option was not pursued: no manhunt, no black Chinooks, no kill order. Nevertheless, that option was included as a proposed follow-on action to recent airstrikes against Iranian-sponsored militia groups behind both a rocket attack that killed an American contractor and the siege of the Baghdad embassy. The suggestion that it was a throwaway course of action belies both how such options are presented at that level and the President’s own decision-making style. Understanding the latter, it’s far more likely that option had been on the table for some time, likely at the direction of the President himself. Such a decision is wholly within the norm for this administration. The only real question about the decision is whether or not it was underpinned by hard intelligence. It may be awhile before we have that answer.
Of deeper concern is what’s next. There is no doubt that the President’s decision put lives at risk; however, without understanding why Soleimani was meeting with his proxy lieutenants we may not know if the decision increased or decreased the existing risk to American lives. Because, frankly, as long as Soleimani was operating with impunity in the region, American lives were always at risk. His plan to excise Western influence from Iraq most certainly had what planners refer to as “branches and sequels”, each more deadly than the last. It’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility to imagine a scenario where he came to see his own “martyrdom” as a necessary trigger to spur the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq.
What is certain is that the President’s decision has the potential to further escalate an already tense situation. A decision of this magnitude is sure to elicit a response from Tehran beyond the bluster typical of the ruling theocracy. And it’s not really a matter of if, but when and how. As Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, noted in Foreign Affairs last summer:
“The Islamic Republic can use proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to attack the United States and its partners. It has an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can target U.S. bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Its mines and land-based antiship missiles can wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and drive up global oil prices. Iran has the capacity to shut down a significant portion of Saudi oil production with aggressive sabotage or cyberattacks, and with its paramilitary unit known as the Quds Force, Iran can attack U.S. targets around the globe.”
This is a high-stakes game of brinkmanship, with regional influence – American or Iranian – the ultimate stakes. This is not a game you play without a strategy well-informed by reliable intelligence. It’s a game where you maneuver yourself to a position of decisive advantage while allowing your opponent to gracefully step away from the edge. Achieving that position while reducing the risk of conflict is more art than science. True artists are especially hard to find these days.