Cycle of escalation - why America’s Iran strategy is counter-productive

Dominic de Bruyn

President Trump’s decision to eliminate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike represents the latest move in an escalatory Iran strategy. On 3 January 2020, a US drone strike hit two cars departing the Baghdad International Airport, killing Soleimani and several officials with Iranian-backed militias.


General Soleimani was the leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani assumed command of the Quds Force in 1998 and worked for the next two decades to reshape the Middle East to Iran’s advantage. Under his leadership, the Quds Force intervened in several regional conflicts, including in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.


After the Iraq War degenerated into violent sectarian conflict, the Quds Force facilitated the flooding of Iraq with lethal roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen. In 2011, Soleimani was designated as a terrorist by the United States and Israel, following an unsuccessful plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.


Soleimani was also a decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, held a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and was a popular figure inside Iran.


In the lead-up to the strike, tensions between the US and Iran were heightened following a series of military exchanges. On 27 December 2019, more than 30 rockets were launched at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, leaving one American contractor dead and several US servicemen wounded. Two days later, American air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed 24 members of an Iranian-backed militia. On 31 December, pro-Iranian militia members marched on the US Embassy in Baghdad, setting fire to the reception building.


The underlying justification for the Soleimani killing was that it would deter Iranian aggression. President Trump claimed that Soleimani was actively plotting “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel”. Senator Tom Cotton argued that the strike was “strategically sensible” and in combination with economic sanctions would force the Iranian regime to fundamentally change its behaviour or face “economic and social collapse.”


Since assuming office, President Trump has pursued an escalatory Iran strategy. In May 2018, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement that placed strict limits on Iranian uranium enrichment. Following the withdrawal, the Trump administration imposed “suffocating economic sanctions” on the Iranian regime in an effort to gain leverage and negotiate a new agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear and regional ambitions.


However, the strategy has demonstrably failed to achieve this objective. Iran responded to the punishing new sanctions by attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. In September 2019, Saudi oil fields were rocked by drone strikes in a sophisticated and targeted operation. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility but Saudi and US officials accused Iran of orchestrating the attack.


In the aftermath of the Soleimani killing, President Trump called for China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom to abandon the JCPOA and negotiate a new deal with Iran. However, the decision to kill General Soleimani is likely to poison the possibility of negotiations for the foreseeable future. Iran announced that it would no longer observe any limitations on its uranium enrichment capacity, the level of enrichment, or research and development.


The killing of Soleimani will provoke further Iranian retaliation. On 8 January 2020, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops. The attack appeared to be carefully calibrated not to kill American servicemen and Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated that “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence.”


Given the superiority of American military capabilities, Iran will not risk a direct military confrontation with the United States. However, Iran will continue to utilise its web of regional proxies to inflict damage on American interests while maintaining plausible deniability.


The decision to kill General Soleimani makes it clear that the Trump administration does not recognise the limitations of a military deterrence strategy. Short of launching a full-scale war to replace the Iranian regime, the US strategy will not result in a cowered and passive Iran. Instead, the region is likely to suffer the consequences of Iranian proxy attacks and covert operations. The tragic downing of a civilian airliner over Tehran is a sobering reminder of the risks of military escalation.


America hopes that taking out Soleimani will deter Iranian aggression and force it back to the negotiating table. It is likely to have just the opposite effect.


Dominic de Bruyn holds a Master of International Relations from The University of Melbourne and is currently employed in the Victorian Public Service.

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