The U.S. drone strike which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad represented the tactical implementation of the Trump Administration’s doctrinal shift to hold the Iranian regime responsible for the conduct of their terrorist proxies. In the aftermath of the back-and-forth escalations between Washington and Tehran that culminated in the death of a U.S. contractor and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in recent weeks, the Trump Administration made the decision to kill Soleimani in order to send the message that the U.S. will no longer tolerate Iran’s dangerous provocations.
Qassem Soleimani was a terrorist. The United States, United Nations, and the European Union had all individually sanctioned him as such. According to retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, Soleimani was “Iran’s deadly puppet master,” a man whose ruthlessness made him “arguably the most powerful and unconstrained actor in the Middle East today.” As the leader of Iran’s Expeditionary Quds Force since 1998, Soleimani developed his country’s asymmetric warfare strategy to fund terrorist groups to threaten the United States and spread Iranian influence in the region. Today, the Quds Force bolsters the murderous regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, funds the Houthi rebels in Yemen, supplies Hezbollah in Lebanon, and continues to direct Shia militias to undermine government authority in Iraq. In April of 2019, the Trump Administration designated the Quds Force a foreign terrorist organization.
The Trump Administration was right to order the strike. Soleimani was responsible for the death of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and according to the Pentagon, officials believed that he was, “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” Now, U.S. officials must take stock of the situation, and act with prudent effort to maintain strategic balance in the region. The U.S. should maintain a credible, forward-deployed military force to deter Iranian attacks, make a concerted effort to preserve ties with the increasingly marginalized Iraqi government, and take advantage of the strategic opening to let Iran save face and restart negotiations without preconditions. These three concrete proposals will allow the U.S. to protect its people, advance its objectives, and avoid another costly land war in the Middle East.
Sustain a Credible Deterrent Force Posture
First and foremost, the U.S. must take steps to protect personnel and assets in the region against inevitable Iranian retaliation. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, promised “harsh revenge” for Soleimani’s death, while the new head of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, stated “the minimum retribution for us is to remove America from the region.” It is unknown whether the January 7th missile strikes at two Iraqi military sites that house U.S. troops will be the extent of Iran’s response. In addition to ballistic missiles, Iran maintains dynamic cyber, maritime, and conventional capabilities to attack American interests. The Trump Administration is right to send more U.S. troops to the region, at least until the threat subsides, and should deter future attacks by voicing the same logic which led to Soleimani’s demise in the first place; the U.S. will hold Iran accountable for the conduct of their terrorist proxies.
Since May 2019, the U.S. has deployed an additional 14,000 troops to the Middle East. This increase is in direct response to Iranian aggression. In the last few months alone, Iran or its proxies shot down an American drone, launched rockets at Saudi oil facilities, and attacked bases in Iraq with U.S. troops on ten separate occasions. Killing Soleimani sends the message that open season on U.S. soldiers and allies is over.
Prioritize Diplomatic Engagement
The United States benefits from a strong partnership with a free and independent Iraq. A robust U.S. presence in the country provides a forward-deployed counterterror capability, hedges against malign Iranian influence, and buttresses a fledgling Iraqi government whose downfall could spur a return to sectarian violence and civil war. In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the Iraqi parliament approved a non-binding resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. Though unfortunate, the vote was merely a symbolic gesture and one that did not gain the backing of a wide spectrum of the parliament. The great majority of Sunni and Kurdish members boycotted the vote, while many Shia members voted “yes” under threat of violent retribution from Iran-backed militias. The ultimate decision will lie with Iraq’s next prime minister, to be chosen in an election in the coming months.
Rather than raging tweetstorms and threatening to destroy Iranian cultural sites, the Trump Administration should instead engage in a diplomatic full-court press to convince the Iraqis of the mutual benefits of U.S. presence. Iraq could never have defeated the Islamic State without U.S. airpower, training, intelligence, and precision-guided weapons. Furthermore, U.S. troops work in tandem with the Iraqi military to counter the growing power of Iranian-backed militia groups. Most Iraqis understand that the U.S. played a powerful role in defeating ISIS, and have little interest in becoming an Iranian client state. The Trump Administration should make this case with utmost clarity, or risk seeing a tactical success become a strategic failure.
Use Enhanced U.S. Leverage to Restart Negotiations
Contrary to popular belief, the United States does not seek regime change in Iran. The Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and diplomatic isolation was designed to compel the Iranians back to the negotiating table in hopes of reaching a nuclear agreement more advantageous to U.S. interests. Neither the United States nor Iran, seek a war. Unfortunately, history is strewn with violent conflicts that nobody wanted, yet felt compelled to engage in as a means to protect national pride and/or maintain professional honor. Given that the United States has now pushed Iran up against a wall, it should now offer Iran a peaceful way out to avoid a potentially devastating conflict.
Through sanctions, the U.S. has demonstrated its capability and willingness to thoroughly degrade the Iranian economy. Through diplomatic engagement, the U.S. has shown its ability to persuade European and Gulf allies to support a renegotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran is strategically isolated, with very few allies willing to risk conflict on its behalf. Perhaps now more than ever, as Iran struggles with civil strife at home and isolation abroad, the time is right for the United States to offer a diplomatic opening without preconditions.
Qassem Soleimani was perhaps the most dangerous man in the Middle East. His death will unleash powerful forces in the region, yet with prudent management, the U.S. can gain strategic leverage in his absence from the battlefield. If the Trump Administration chooses a path of credible deterrence, diplomatic engagement, and sincere negotiations, it is possible that the U.S. can emerge stronger than before. If, however, the administration chooses to proceed with belligerent rhetoric and/or isolationist threats to withdraw, it will imperil U.S. interests and play directly into Iran’s increasingly desperate hands.
Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.