Killing Soleimani might’ve opened Pandora’s box

By DANIEL W. DREZNER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 3, 2020

Iraqi state television reports that an airstrike has killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani as well as Naim Qassem, the second-in-command of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in Baghdad. Multiple reporters confirmed Soleimani’s death, and Newsweek’s James LaPorta reported that it was from a U.S. drone strike. The Defense Department announced that it carried out this attack “at the direction of the President.”

Soleimani, an important figure in the region, had been destabilizing U.S. interests for decades. His death will have consequences, and those should be explored.

But there are three factors that make me reticent to opine with any confidence. The first is that we still do not know an awful lot about how this went down. The second is that the greater Middle East is its own special policy morass and I am loath as a non-area expert to enter those waters. The third is that the variance of possible outcomes is huge.

So rather than make any confident predictions about what will happen, let me instead pose some questions that need to be answered:

1) Just how much planning has the Trump administration done for the aftermath? This escalated very quickly from the breach of the U.S. Embassy grounds in Baghdad two days before. We know from the Trump years that any time this administration has increased pressure on the Iranian regime, there has been an asymmetric response that involves attacks on U.S. forces and the strategic assets of its allies. We also know that Iran has a pretty large network of loyalists across the region that could be activated for such an attack. The probability of further escalation from the Iranian side is high. How prepared is the Trump administration for such escalation? Is the DOD rushing Marines to every embassy and consulate in the region, as it did in the wake of the breach in Baghdad?

Based on the hypotheses I have about his decision-making style, it would not surprise me in the slightest if this was an impulse decision. If that is the case, this will be an excellent test of how well the D-team national security machinery will work during a crisis.

2) Does a decapitation strategy work on a state actor? Iran is a state with significant capacity to make mischief in its neighborhood. The death of Soleimani does not wish the Quds Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Islamic Republic of Iran out of existence. An awful lot of Iranians and other Shiites will want to retaliate. Standard international relations theory suggests that decapitating a key leader would not fundamentally affect that state’s capacity to act.

On the other hand, if one believes Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Soleimani was a uniquely networked actor in the region.

“For two decades, Suleimani has been the most powerful, savvy & effective terrorist on the planet. He’s enjoyed full backing of powerful terrorist state. Irreplaceable,” Dubowitz tweeted Jan. 2. “It’s like losing your JSOC commander, CIA director & foreign minister — all at once.”

Andrew Exum, who served as the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy during the Obama administration, made a similar observation in the Atlantic: “From a military and diplomatic perspective, Soleimani was Iran’s David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal and Brett McGurk all rolled into one. And that’s now the problem Iran faces. I do not know of a single Iranian who was more indispensable to his government’s ambitions in the Middle East.”

This really depends on whether you think Iran’s power projection in the region needed Soleimani to be the vital node or whether that node can be easily replaced. If Dubowitz and Exum are correct, then Soleimani will be extremely difficult to replace and this represents a major setback for Iran. If not, then one would expect a coordinated ramping up of attacks on U.S. assets across the world.

3) What are the limits of escalation? The U.S. just killed an agent of another government. That is escalating tensions with Iran. On the other hand, Soleimani had been directing attacks against U.S. personnel in the region for at least a decade, so relations were already pretty tense. Furthermore, neither President Donald Trump nor Iran’s leadership wants a full-scale conventional war. What will both sides do short of outright war to weaken the other side? The United States has already imposed punishing sanctions. What Iran might do in the Persian Gulf in response bears watching.

4) What are the wild cards? Will there be spontaneous violent reactions from the Shiites across the region? Iraq’s government has been wobbling for months — will this cause it to collapse? If it does collapse, what happens then?

So there are lots of ways this could go badly in the next few weeks. But not every predicted bad thing happens. Soleimani’s death in the abstract is not the worst thing for U.S. interests in the region. We are about to see whether the abstract matches the real.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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