There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen. At the start of the eventful year of 2020, it was the latter. The U.S. nearly inaugurated the decade with a war against Iran after assassinating Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Unfortunately, like the global pandemic, the ramifications of this will linger into 2021 and beyond. Iranian proxies have declared the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing on Jan. 3 will not go by without retaliation. The threat of war is still real, and the U.S. needs to reevaluate its presence in the Middle East if it seeks to avoid a new chapter of the forever wars.
Soleimani was not a faceless bureaucrat. He was the foremost symbol of Iran’s "Axis of Resistance" in the Middle East. As Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah remarked, there is no American equivalent to Soleimani. In former Gen. David Petraeus’ words, the closest equivalent would be a combination of, “CIA director, CENTCOM commander, JSOC commander, and presidential envoy for the region.” Soleimani’s death prompted mass rallies in Iran that quickly gave way to promises of harsh revenge against the United States.
Given Soleimani’s symbolic importance, it’s easy to overstate the impact of his death. His death was immensely impactful in bringing Iran and the U.S. to the verge of war. But it wasn’t impactful in curtailing Iran’s regional activities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps still operates in the same theaters as before, and Soleimani’s successor boasts substantial experience coordinating Iranian proxies in Syria. In other words, the U.S. picked a flashy target, not one that would dampen Iran’s proxy activities.
Predictably, this strike had the opposite effect than U.S. decision makers intended. Rather than reinforce deterrence to protect U.S. personnel, the Soleimani strike prompted Iran to conduct a retaliatory strike that injured over 100 U.S. troops in Iraq. Nor did Iran’s proxies dampen their efforts. In December, rocket strikes against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad prompted President Donald Trump to reiterate his red line of no dead Americans.
While the U.S. fears Iran may cross the point of no return, Iran is likewise anticipating Washington could conduct another attack in Trump’s waning days in office. This isn’t out of the question, as Trump reportedly considered a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in November. Some of Iran’s proxies have called for restraint in response to the embassy attack, recognizing that war would be disadvantageous to both sides. At the same time, however, Iran is reportedly prepping its proxies to respond in the event of a U.S. attack.
Both on the Iranian and the U.S. side, there is suspicion of an impending attack by the other side. But if the United States fears American troops will die, and that’s a sufficient reason to go to war, then why not leave Iraq? Iran’s proxy activities have continued despite a heavy sanctions campaign and military force. There’s no acceptable avenue the U.S. can pursue that hasn’t already been tried and failed. And there’s no strategic reason to stay in Iraq that would justify the overwhelming risks the U.S. incurs.
Iraq is already in a political environment that’s likely to stave off Iranian domination of the country. Even the formerly anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the embassy attack because it undermined the authority of the Iraqi state. The Iraqi government has also ramped up pressure on these militias, and issued an arrest warrant for the leader of one of Iran’s favored proxies. Iraqis are best suited to handling security in their own country. The U.S. should stick to protecting its own people. That means a military withdrawal from the country.
Such a move isn’t drastic; it’s long overdue. The overwhelming majority of Americans support such measures. Moreover, the choice of military occupation or abandonment is a false dichotomy. The U.S. can still be a diplomatic and economic player in the region. That’s not isolationism but rather a recognition that the costs from strongarming Iran far outweigh the potential benefits. Diplomacy is an underutilized tool in American policymaking, and it would behoove President-elect Joe Biden to bring it back to prominence. The alternative is another decade of American foreign policy where nothing happens for the better.
Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.