By Dhruv Shah
On January 3rd, 2020, US drones targeted and killed Iran’s most important General, Qassem Soleimani. This audacious act has been the first time since WW2, the US has openly killed a foreign military leader. Five days later on January 8th, Iran retaliated with direct strikes of their own on Iraqi bases housing US troops. Together, this has culminated in a rapidly escalating conflict within the Middle East and brought US and Iran to the brink of war.
Despite the mass protests against the US within Iran and the vow of revenge from Iran’s leader to avenge the deaths, Donald Trump has defended this foreign policy as a success. Is Trump’s bold foreign policy a moment of triumph or pure madness? The short answer: its complicated. This article takes the viewpoint that one should not completely dismiss Trump’s actions immediately. Iran has increasingly become more and more brazen in how they undermine other states globally. Under Trump, the US has signified they will not stand for this. However, this will only provide short term success. Long term gains are unlikely due to the lack of an overarching strategy regarding future negotiations with Iran, along with Iran’s present hellbent desire to achieve revenge, most likely accomplished through proxy warfare. This will only lead to the deaths of soldiers and innocent civilians and help destabilise an already volatile Middle East.
General Soleimani was considered to be the driving force behind the ‘Quds’ force, a specialist unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, specialising in unconventional warfare and tactics. To the West, many view him as the architect of Iran’s network of proxies, militias and forward bases which span across the Middle East, and through his command, Iran has successfully projected their power across the region. Soleimani has been responsible for terror plots reaching as far as Bulgaria, while providing support for Hezbollah militants in Iraq. For example, the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 allowed Soleimani to recruit and radicalise young men into militias. They were later responsible for using rocket launchers and roadside bombs and killing hundreds of British and US troops. In short, Soleimani was a menace to the West, whose death will be felt strongly by Iran.
Donald Trump has largely stood aside for the last year as Iran has become more brazen in their attacks. The recent drone strikes on oil tankers, proven to be Iran, along with a US pentagon statement released after the airstrikes, accusing Soleimani of “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq,” emphasises that the US should take some sort of action imminently. While missile strikes may not have been the moral way to go, they can be effective; Soleimani’s death will only send a strong message to Iran and their allies that the US is willing to strike back and will not willingly stand passively to the side. This is evident from Iran’s almost timid response to US strikes. Iran’s restraint suggests that they are not willing to test the US’s resolve in further strikes against them. Missile strikes seem less likely now in the short run, then they did in 2019.
That being said, Iran’s thirst for revenge has not been quenched and will likely play the long game. As William Tobey, senior fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs contended, countries who feel attacked become “largely risk tolerant.” Donald Trump has opened Pandora’s box by striking at a state with the capabilities of Iran. Iran is likely to pursue indirect methods such as cyber-attacks & suicide bombings by proxies. By this means, Trump has made a grave miscalculation. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has promised “to take revenge” on the US. These reprisals may take months or even years, however, what is sure, is that Iran will strike back eventually.
One-way Iran will strike back at the US is by undermining their influence within Middle East. It will start in Iraq, a country which Iran has continually outmanoeuvred the US. The Iraqi government is Shia dominated and recently passed a resolution on the 5th of January banning foreign troops from the country. This is a serious blow to the US who as part of a security arrangement with Iraq, house 5,200 troops there. The Iranian government has a strong influence within Iraq and is using this to their advantage by undermining what control the US has. This is only the beginning, and Iran will seek to continue along this path until the Middle East is free from US power.
What is most worrying is the US’s lack of a clear strategy with dealing with Iran. Lack of negotiations with Ayatollah Khamenei has resulted in the US slapping Iran with sanctions with threats of destruction from Trump on Twitter. This is an ineffective policy move. The potency of sanctions long term is questionable. They were unable to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait in 1990: only when a full military operation occurred, did he withdraw from Kuwait. In order for US to sustain this strategy in the foreseeable future, they will need to implement heavy sanctions on Iran along with a heavy military offensive – increased airstrikes and greater troop presence in Middle East. This is at odds with Trump and his anti-war rhetoric, he has spewed to voters in order to secure their votes. According to J. Wallin Opinion Research, a large majority of the public is opposed to military interventions within the Middle East. The question remains, is Trump willing to enact a strong US foreign policy regarding Iran at the cost of alienating his voter base?
A successful long-term policy goal towards Iran remains extremely challenging. Iran’s emphasis on militancy and proxy warfare arguably puts the US in a catch 22. If the US remains passive then Iran and their allies, will continue to carry out attacks against US troops within the region. If the US begins to counter these threats, Iran will only desire revenge and the vicious cycle of violence will only continue. Donald Trump has decided to bully his way out of this situation and show Iran just how far the US will go. He has already deployed 3000 additional troops to the Middle East. This may nullify the chaos initially but will only heighten conflict and tensions long term. Many people continue to be unhappy at foreign troops in the region, perceiving this as US ‘imperialism’. This resentment will only be capitalised by local terror groups and Iran who will use this as a means to carry out more attacks. If Trump wishes to stabilise the Middle East, he is going to have to find a new strategy; one that does not antagonise the Middle East while simultaneously allowing him to retain security for the US.