The news that the US conducted a “precision attack”, “preemptive strike”, “assassination”, “act of war”, whatever you want to call it, and killed not only the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and a PMF leader (perhaps legitimate targets), but a number of Iraqi government security personnel has roiled Near East Asia and put the world on edge for what will happen next. I won’t spend much time discussing whether or not it made any sense to conduct this attack because the reason why it was a bad idea is obvious from the analysis of what might happen next. But I will say it was an irresponsible thing to do, especially in the where and when it was done.
My position is that overt, public attacks on the leadership of sovereign nations outside of war is highly questionable both from a legal and effectiveness standpoint, and causes more harm than good. There must be a bright line between war and judicial/legal enforcement. Of course there is a third way – the covert op way – but that’s a different and complex discussion. I certainly won’t argue that Soleimani wasn’t behind a lot of actions that the US views as terrorism (a term I dislike in this case – what we are seeing is asymmetric warfare conducted by a nation-state). If it’s that bad (and and argument could be made it is), collect allies, take it to congress, declare war, follow international law, take action. Here comes the angry rant: In my opinion, in this case any analyst that thought this was a good idea should be fired. You could put the skull of anyone associated with this operation up to your ear, and you would hear the ocean. This was next level dumb. Yes, I’m angry about this because it puts a lot of lives at risk, it violates international law, and compromises the US moral and strategic position both in the region and globally.
My position isn’t based on domestic politics – that’s not an attack on the Trump Administration, because Iran policy has been stupid for a long time, and the concept of assassination by targeted strike in third countries with which we are not at war has been around a long time; in modern times, the Clinton administration used cruise missiles, the Bush II/Obama and now Trump admins use drones. It has distorted US foreign policy, and should stop. OK, now that’s out of the way, lets gaze into the crystal ball and try to figure out what it means.
Some in the US are hoping on the Iranians “get the message” and back off their support for various proxies around the Middle East; but I think a lot of analysts (not just Republicans, but those on the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the Democrat Party a well) are actually hoping Iran will react directly and give the US an opportunity (excuse) to execute a “regime change” operation. Only the second has much of any chance of happening – and given the “success” of the last three attempts at regime change operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) it’s hard to see how an outright war with Iran could play out successfully.
How will Iran react, and when? My guess is nothing happens until Monday (6 Jan) for several reasons. First, they will want to exploit the mourning period (three days), and fire up the masses. Second, they will need time to come up with a plan (or, more likely, decide which pre-planned response to trigger) and implement it. Finally, they are watching developments in the world, especially Iraq.
I don’t think the Government of Iran will act until they see how the Government of Iraq reacts to the fact that the US violated our agreement on keeping troops in their country, not to mention quaint concepts like international norms and law. Iran has the high ground diplomatically right now, and won’t want to squander it. If the US is thrown out of Iraq, its position in Syria is utterly undermined, and much of US containment policy against Iran unravels. If asked to leave and the US refuses, it will rapidly get bogged down in a major counter-insurgency operation in Iraq that will make actions against Iran difficult or impossible. Even if, ultimately, Iraq decides not to take drastic action, it has soured the relationship and will make future operations much more difficult. Iraq is a very complex place. Yes, some are cheering this attack, and others are plotting revenge for them. But for those in the middle, who don’t really like either the US or Iran, it has placed them in a very difficult position and moved the balance towards Iran. This is why it was utterly foolish for the US to attack Suleimani on Iraqi soil – especially killing Iraqi security forces in the process. It totally undermines an already iffy presence and will lead to the US being forced out, or, more likely, bogged down and compromised.
At this point, neither side is in a position to back down unless there are no further incidents by either side, but that doesn’t seem likely, as the US has conducted additional strikes Saturday, and Iran feels it must respond. Worse, the problem is that Iranian proxies, who have a long personal relationship with Soleimani, may not give Iran time to let things play out. They may give the US the excuse it needs, and any attack by a proxy will be played as an attack by Iran, even if Iran didn’t want or ask for it.
Most media analysts are discussing this in primarily military terms. The force structures and objectives are so different, it’s almost nonsensical. Certainly the US could, at some cost, eliminate the Iranian military in a few days or weeks at most. Only Russia or China could potentially stand up to an all out assault from the US, and those would be bloody for both sides with “victory” unlikely for anyone but the cockroaches. But Iran just doesn’t have the technology or resources to stand up to a US conventional attack. It won’t be as easy as some might think, but Iran has no conventional chance at all.
However,for the most part Iran won’t fight conventionally, even if attacked that way. Iran could inflict harm on the US via asymmetric means (aka terrorism), but I think this is somewhat overplayed with respect to the “homeland”. Europe and the Middle East are another matter, and regional disruptions are assured if this escalates. Those analysts discussing the economic aspects seem to be focused on the impact on Iran, and the fact that the US has enough domestic energy (oil) production to ride out major disruptions in Persian Gulf Oil that would result from an all out conflict. Some would even argue the US would benefit – China is very dependent on Middle East energy, so some also argue it’s a win-win: take out Iran, disrupt China. That’s probably correct from a narrow view, but this misses a vital point. Despite stock market trends, the US economic situation is extremely fragile on a number of levels – it would take a very long post just to provide the background on that.
While it is true that US oil production is rather high, it is based on the rapidly diminishing returns from fracking and shale oil. It might ride out a short crisis – and that may be part of the rush to war, since once the boom ends, the US will again be vulnerable to Middle East disruptions. But the main problem is how intertwined global economies and credit markets are. The view that a oil disruption induced financial crisis would remain confined to China or Europe is probably wishful thinking. If Iran (or proxies) attack Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, disrupting supplies, it may cause the economic dominoes to start falling across Asia and Europe, ultimately impacting the US. Interestingly Russia would likely be little impacted by all this, in part because of US and European sanctions, which has forced them to insulated themselves somewhat from the Western economic system. And of course they have significant oil and gas supplies, and could profit from the situation. A few are making the utterly ridiculous argument that Trump is Putin’s puppet, and because Russia might benefit directly from this conflict they are orchestrating it. Any serious student of Russian foreign policy would know this is absurd. Russia has been pushing for stability and stabilization in the region – on their terms, to be sure, but if they were given advance work of the strike (and there is absolutely zero evidence they did) they would have opposed it.
A further revelation came this Sunday, that Soleimani may have been involved in passing messages between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran to de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen (and the resulting attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure). If so, that makes the US strike even more inflammatory and questionable.
So, while the reasons are complex, ultimately the risk isn’t war – bad as that might be for those involved – the risk is that conflict will trigger a major economic crisis.