The United States and Iran:  On the brink?

By Joe Barnes
Bonner Means Baker Fellow


The killing of Qassem Suleimani marks an important – and fraught – moment in the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran. Suleimani was a major general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps , and, since 1998, head of the Guard’s Al-Quds force, responsible for clandestine operations and activities abroad. He was a major figure in Iran and the region. Suleimani oversaw Iran’s military cooperation with Iranian allies and proxies in places as far-flung as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. His death at American hands is, in other words, a very big deal.

The killing of Suleimani is the proximate result of a series of events over recent weeks. A U.S. contractor in Iraq was killed in a rocket attack launched by a pro-Iranian militia. (Such attacks are not uncommon.)   In retaliation, the U.S. struck five militia facilities, killing a reported 25 individuals. Iraqi protesters, many of them supporters of pro-Iranian militia, then assaulted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. President Trump responded, in turn, by ordering a drone strike on Suleimani, killing him shortly after he arrived at Baghdad airport. The strike also killed killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of pro-Iranian Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

The escalation, moreover, occurs against the backdrop of rising tensions associated with the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. This began two years ago. The United States, in fulfilment of a campaign pledge made by candidate Trump in 2016, pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed sanctions. These sanctions have severely crippled the Iranian economy. In 2019, Tehran responded by a series of actions – usually through proxies – that included attacks on oil tankers and, last fall, a drone assault on a major Saudi oil facility. The Trump administration’s reaction to these Iranian provocations was muted. But the events of the last few weeks clearly moved the administration from tactical restraint to decisive action. As will be discussed, whether than action was wise is another question altogether.

There are questions about the legality of the strike on Suleimani. At a minimum, the Trump administration failed to conform to tradition by not informing congressional leaders of the planned action. The legal questions are interesting and will surely be debated in the weeks and months ahead. But the powers of the president in such matters are substantial, both under the constitution and by traditional congressional deference. Administration lawyers will no doubt make a case for the president’s authority to act unilaterally; that is what administration lawyers do, no matter the political complexion of the administration. Ideally, a new congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force — one specifically approving US action against Iran — would confer legal legitimacy to the administration’s action. But given the political polarization on Capitol Hill, such a measure is unlikely to become law.

Suleimani is a man with much blood on his hands, include that of American troops killed and wounded by pro-Iranian militias in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He made brutal war in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. And there are surely many in the Arab Middle East who will weep no tears at his demise.

But acts of this magnitude must be assessed, in the first instance, by the strategic purpose they purport to promote. And here the picture is, to put it mildly, unclear.

Iran has promised to retaliate. Trump, in turn, has threatened to attack 52 Iranian targets — each one symbolizing an American hostage taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. He specifically mentioned targets of cultural importance to Iran. Should he follow through on the last threat, some experts believe that the United States may be guilty of war crimes, as attacks on cultural sites are prohibited under international law.

The stage is set for an ugly tit-for-tat that risks escalation, with Iran acting through its proxies in the Middle East. That escalation is unlikely to lead to full-scale war, much less a U.S. invasion. The Iranian government, however angered, will be hesitant to embark on a course of action that could lead to major U.S. attacks on the country’s military and economic infrastructure. We are not on the brink of World War III.

But the situation is serious enough. The Iraqi government — weakened by popular demonstrations in recent months — finds itself in an excruciating position. The attack on Suleimani — undertaken on Iraqi soil but without permission — is perceived by many Iraqis as an affront to national sovereignty. It also plays directly into the hands of pro-Iranian elements. Indeed, in the aftermath of the killing the Iraqi parliament voted for the departure of U.S. troops from the country. (Whether this non-binding vote will lead to the exit of US forces is unclear.)  Other than Israel, the U.S. is unlikely to find enthusiastic allies in its confrontation with Iran. Even Saudi Arabia — rattled by the fall attacks on its oil facilities — is clearly interested in de-escalating the conflict. And most European countries — which oppose the maximum pressure campaign in the first place — are unlikely to give Washington much more than pro forma support.

Not least, the Trump administration appears to have no clear strategy when it comes to Iran. While  Trump may have campaigned on ending American military involvement in the Middle East, the decision to embark on a maximum pressure campaign against Iran has inevitably raised the prospect of further U.S. military action. Even the campaign, on its own terms, has to date been a failure. The Iranian economy has, indeed, been hurt badly. But Tehran has neither yielded to U.S. demands to renegotiate the nuclear deal nor altered its external behavior. On the contrary, Iran has announced its willingness to breach the limits placed on its nuclear program by the agreement and has grown even more aggressive in the region. Moreover, the killing of Suleimani — a symbol for many Iranians of their country’s international stature — is likely to bolster the popularity of an Iranian government buffeted in recent months by public discontent.

The Trump administration has said that it seeks de-escalation. The president’s incendiary tweet about attacking Iranian cultural sites suggests otherwise. This is an occasion for quiet diplomacy and sober reflection, of rallying allies and reassessing strategy. There is scant evidence, three years into Trump’s presidency, that the administration is adept at any of these critical elements of successful foreign policy. The Middle East is admittedly a uniquely challenging region for any U.S. administration; for 20 years, U.S. failures have outweighed successes, at terrible financial and human cost. But the impetuous, erratic approach of the Trump administration risks making a bad situation worse.