By Anushka Kapahi, Contributing Writer

“Walk softly and carry a big stick.” -United States President Teddy Roosevelt

A full-scale conflict between the United States and Iran is not a certainty; however, the probability is higher than it has been at any point in decades. Throughout his tenure, President Trump has been trying to avoid the outburst of war with Iran, opting to reduce military involvement in the Middle East. Regardless, his decision to kill Major General Qassim Suleimani, one of the most influential figures in the Islamic Republic and head of Iran’s Quds military force, in an airstrike leaves both countries embroiled in an escalating crisis. There are now fears of a military confrontation that could result in devastating outcomes and even escalate into a full-scale war.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been rapidly escalating, and there has been a lack of coherent strategies by the United States to contain Iran’s nefarious behavior. These tensions sparked after military intelligence confirmed Iran was acting in violation of the terms of the 2015 Nuclear Deal, and President Trump kept his campaign promise of withdrawing from this agreement in May 2018. Post-withdrawal of the deal by the United States, the Pentagon released a statement that declared the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran. John Bolton, the United States National Security Adviser, said that the deployment sent “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on the United States or its allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack.” The United States’ show of force was in response to possible attacks against American forces by Iran and its proxies in the region.

Major General Qassim Suleimani was labeled as an international terrorist. By arriving in Baghdad to help orchestrate further attacks on the United States’ embassy there, the general was in defiance of the United Nations imposed travel ban to Iraq, and the United States considered his arrival a military threat to their forces in the region. The United States War Powers Resolution is a federal law intended to check the President’s power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of the United States’ Congress. This provision authorized President Trump to order the airstrike, with President Trump arguing that the United States military was undertaking decisive defensive action to protect United States personnel abroad by deterring attacks against the United States embassy, service members, and diplomats.

The United States should continue undertaking extreme precautionary measures to deter further escalation.

The United States should continue undertaking extreme precautionary measures to deter further escalation. In assessing the killing of General Suleimani, the Iranian regime may feel that they are less likely to save face globally by not retaliating, but the opposite may be closer to the truth. Choosing not to counterattack is far more likely to lessen global pressure and potentially ease current sanctions on their crippled economy. Sadly, based on Iran’s history of aggression as well as the current dogma and violent rhetoric from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they are more than likely to lean toward a strong and aggressive response. In fact, Iran carried out a ballistic missile attack on airbases housing United States forces in Iraq just days after the Suleimani strike. Over a dozen missiles launched from Iran struck two Iraqi bases in Irbil and Al Asad. This has put American citizens, especially in the Middle East, in far more significant risk of attack across a much wider battlefield than before.

The United States’ State Department warned American citizens to immediately leave Iraq, especially after the militias attacked the United States and allied installations, such as the embassy. The Iraqi government declared that Suleimani’s killing was a violation of the terms of the American military presence in Iraq, despite it being a response to threats posed to the United States. However, despite the needed retaliation on the United States side, the American military is likely to face pressure in withdrawing its troops and diplomatic personnel from Iraq. If the United States does withdraw, there is a possibility that Iran will claim victory, while the fight against terrorist groups, particularly ISIS, will be lost as the group continues to capitalize on this crisis.

These past months have proved that both the United States and Iran have failed to calibrate their counterattacks. Each cycle of escalations has led the other side to ramp up, triggering responses that are more costly than the last. It is not as if the United States wanted its embassy in Baghdad to be stormed and attacked, neither did Iran want its Quds Force commander assassinated.

Despite the United States’ actions being described as a retaliatory measure to prevent further attacks and protect its personnel and diplomats within the country, critics have argued that the actual reasoning was to force the withdrawal of Iran from the region or the toppling of the Iranian government. This uncertainty, coupled with American military power, puts pressure on Iran to ready themselves for the worst. When faced with threats, a state has two options: to either stand down and negotiate or strike at the source of that threat hard enough to make it back down.

Iran is a regional power that possesses sophisticated military capabilities, unlike any other country that the United States has contended with since World War II, other than the USSR. It is a far cry from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the armies of North Vietnam. Iran has also spent years in preparation for enduring a possible war with the United States. The most considerable risk that the United States faces is asymmetric Iranian warfare that could reach a point where the United States is compelled to strike Iran directly. Despite being incapable of winning a conventional war with the United States, Iran’s conventional forces make ground war costly, especially considering that they have extensive medium-range missiles that can strike American bases throughout the Middle East and could call on proxy militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to attack American assets.

While the possibility of conventional war is not impossible to rule out, fears over World War III, a phrase that has trended on social media, are overblown. Iran’s willingness to retaliate and its history of risk-taking, driven by a perception of the scale of the threat that the United States poses, increases the danger to all involved.

In closing, in many ways, Iran has been the clear aggressor. However, the broader question the United States military should be asking itself is whether or not this conflict is in United States interests or is it continuing to destabilize the region. If there is no clear mission and no clear path to the success of that mission, endless conflict cannot be the answer.

Anushka Kapahi has completed her Master’s degree in International Affairs with a concentration in International Security and International Law from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She has also completed her undergraduate studies in International Relations and Diplomacy at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila, Philippines. She is currently working in the Senate of the Philippines as a legislative staff and will be pursuing her law studies starting May of 2020.