The Corner

National Security & Defense

Iran Crosses the Red Line

An Iranian holds a picture of General Qasem Soleimani as people gather to mourn him in Tehran, Iran, January 4, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency/via Reuters)

The devil has a new companion. Qasem Soleimani is dead, killed Thursday by an American airstrike as he arrived in Baghdad airport to plan new attacks against the United States.

As a matter of justice, it should have happened long ago. Soleimani’s hands were steeped in innocent blood. He has directed Hezbollah’s terrorism in Lebanon and Israel, supported Bashar al-Assad in the humanitarian disaster Assad has inflicted on Syria, and sponsored and supported killing in Iraq as part of Iran’s efforts to control that country. That’s not to mention all the acts of global terrorism, and attempted terrorism, for which he was responsible in the last two decades.

If there were a Mount Rushmore for butchers in the Middle East, Soleimani, despite stiff competition, would be on it.

Yet Soleimani’s monstrous career was not the precipitating cause of the mission that took him down. Rather, the airstrike was a response to the recent militia attacks on America’s embassy in Baghdad, and the wisdom of it should be judged by its effectiveness in that regard.

As always, context is vital. We have to consider this action in light of the Trump administration’s broader strategy in the Middle East.

Early in the president’s term, the administration identified Iran as the biggest regional threat in the Middle East, and constraining Iran became a priority mission. To that end, the United States reassembled the informal coalition — with Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf states — through which America had for decades pursued its interests in the Middle East.

In addition, the administration used economic power to squeeze the Iranian economy. The United States first withdrew from the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action (Barack Obama’s “Iran deal”) and then began ratcheting up sanctions against Iran to an unprecedented level.

Economic power is clearly Donald Trump’s preferred tool of national influence, and his administration is good at using it. The Iranian economy, which is unbalanced and anemic at the best of times, is now in free fall. Oil exports have dropped by 75 percent, the currency has lost half its value, inflation is somewhere around 50 percent, and the GDP has decreased significantly.

Iran has many mouths to feed in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere, and its dependents are getting hungry. In addition, Tehran was forced to cut the domestic subsidies that it uses, along with ruthless repression, to control the Iranian people. The resulting protests have been suppressed but not ended, and they represent a potentially existential threat to the regime.

Naturally the regime has attempted to respond. It sold oil to China, but at a discount: Beijing is exploiting Iran’s isolation to buy at distress prices. The regime tried to get the Europeans to break American sanctions, but that largely failed: It turns out that European firms are not eager to risk being cut off from the American financial system.

Then Tehran began shifting the conflict into the kinetic sphere, hoping perhaps to intimidate America or, more likely, to cause the Europeans either to break the sanctions or to pressure the United States into sanctions relief.

The regime threatened to close the Persian Gulf; in response, the United States stepped up its regional presence. The regime used proxies and other assets to attack oil tankers and a Saudi oil installation. That failed as well; the effect on the world market was negligible, and the administration responded by ratcheting up sanctions even more, increasing diplomatic pressure through its coalition partners, and conducting cyber operations against Iran.

Having failed to that point, Tehran escalated further. Despite specific American warnings, Iranian proxies launched at least ten rocket attacks on American-Iraqi bases, killing an American contractor and wounding four American service personnel. The United States retaliated by striking through the air against a pro-Iran militia, killing at least 25 militia personnel. Soleimani’s response, on behalf of the regime he had served so well for so long, was to direct his militia proxies to attack the American embassy in Baghdad.

It was the last outrage for which he will ever be responsible.

So what are the takeaways?

The United States has a clear strategy in dealing with the threat from Iran. It is to strangle the regime until it either comes seriously to the bargaining table or is overthrown by its own people. Whether the strategy will succeed remains to be seen, but the Trump administration has pursued it with consistency and purpose and is achieving demonstrable progress towards the goal.

President Trump has narrowed America’s commitments in the Middle Eastern theater but has restored the credibility of those that remain. The move against Soleimani was an ingenious stroke in that regard; it was bold but surgical, and the effect of it as a demonstration of American resolve will be comprehensive and long-lasting — and not just in the Middle East.

It would be a mistake for the administration or its supporters to adopt a triumphalist attitude regarding this episode. The Iranians used the sanctions relief from the JCPOA to upgrade their arsenal of precision ballistic and cruise missiles and to spread more of those missiles to their proxies in the region. They have greater capacity now to damage American assets in the region, though they would exhaust that capacity quickly — and the administration has just sent a powerful message that the response to any conventional attack would be certain and overwhelming.

All of that is a reason why the president’s sanctions policy is so necessary. It starves the Iranian regime of the resources it needs to grow stronger. It’s also a reason why the move against Soleimani was well chosen and well timed.

As I have emphasized before, every action or inaction in the Middle East carries risk. This step was no exception. The Iranians are no doubt considering whether and how to inflict additional costs on the United States, though henceforth they will have to make their plans without the aid of Qasem Soleimani. But they were in the process of escalating anyway. This is a case where not responding would have been riskier, and more likely to lead to additional and more serious attacks over time, than showing Iran that the United States will forcefully defend its people, its installations, and its rights.

The United States is getting better at smart power and grey-war tactics. The administration has effectively coordinated an economic, diplomatic, and cyber campaign to pressure the Iranian regime on a number of fronts at once. Consistent with the president’s reluctance to engage in new military operations, particularly in the Middle East, the armed forces have until this latest exercise remained mostly in the background, but their presence has been essential to the broader effort.

As the last week has shown, it is the deterrent and retaliatory power of America’s armed forces that gives the other tools of influence time and space to work. The sanctions may be doing the heaviest lifting over the long term, but it isn’t economics that is protecting the Foreign Service officers and civilian employees who work in the American embassy. It’s Marines from CENTCOM’s Crisis Response Task Force and, right behind them, the locked and loaded power of the armed forces of the United States.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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