February 23, 2020

What the Soleimani Killing Means for the Future of Iranian Radicalism

Moshe Arens was known for his measured expression of hawkish views. He died at age 93 a year ago this week. As Israel’s defense minister in the early 1990s, Arens believed Israel erred in not retaliating against then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the Tel Aviv bus bombing in 1994. Arens’ boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, made the difficult choice of restraint after a request by  President George H.W. Bush not to disrupt the unity of the coalition against Iraq. The coalition included Arab countries that had agreed to fight a war against a fellow Arab regime but likely would defect if Israel were to join in.

What a world that was. The U.S. was celebrating the “end of history” by becoming a sole superpower and making new rules for the geopolitical game. Syria was a member of the anti-Iraq coalition. Saudi Arabia still looked at Israel as a problem rather than an ally in a fight much bigger than the one against Iraq. The American president was a measured, methodical, respectable —  oftentimes boring — leader. Benjamin Netanyahu was just taking his first steps as a politician under the guidance of Arens. During the Persian Gulf War, Netanyahu became the main spokesman for Israel, especially beloved by emerging media powerhouse CNN.

Israelis my age remember the winter of 1991 when Scud missiles hit their cities, somewhat nostalgically. There were sirens, a lot of rain, confusion, scary moments — and a lot of laughs. We laughed at Hussein and at the way we looked wearing gas masks. We laughed at the empty streets, abandoned by citizens who wanted a secure place close to a shelter or a sealed room (against the gas), and at the ridiculousness of it all. Iraq invaded Kuwait and Israelis were punished. Luckily, we had only a few casualties. Hence, our ability to have a nostalgic reminiscence, devoid of great trauma.

Now, we have been warned another war soon may break out.

Two weeks ago, Gen. Amos Gilad, former director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Ministry of Defense, told me that in 2020, the probability of war with Iran would increase. Warnings about the prospect for war between Israel and Iran started before the Jan. 3 killing by U.S. forces of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of that nation’s elite Quds Force, at Baghdad International Airport.

Then, the warnings became more concrete. On Jan. 6, former Gen. Amos Yadlin, former chief of military intelligence, told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, that there was an increased likelihood of war. Yadlin is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think tank and research institute affiliated with Tel Aviv University, and his presentation to the president was an updated version of the institute’s national strategic assessment for 2020. Updated not because of the need to include the possibility of war —  that possibility already was included — but because neither Yadlin nor Gilad nor any other general could have guessed that Soleimani would be killed. They couldn’t foresee the altered calculations of the U.S. and Iran.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from what happened in recent days in the Middle East, it’s beware of the forecasts of experts. 

If there’s any lesson to be learned from what happened in recent days in the Middle East, it’s beware of experts’ forecasts. Former and current generals, reporters and pundits, political operatives and strategic thinkers were thinking one thing on Jan. 2 and another thing the next morning. One decision by one administration, whose actions are unpredictable, changed the calculus of the region and made the projections of experts dubious, if not obsolete. 

In one of the last-minute additions to the INSS assessment, the institute said, “The Soleimani elimination … creates a new context and holds the potential for strategic turnaround, the scope and dimensions of which are still too early to be evaluated.” That is a polite way to say we have no clue. “The key question,” the document continues, “is whether the elimination indicates a fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward a proactive military campaign against Iran’s regional activities, or is it a more concrete act aimed at preventing and deterring the imposition of a heavy toll on a series of pro-Iranian actions.”

Indeed, that is the question — to which even more confusion was added on Jan. 7 when Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley were prompted to call an urgent news conference to deny reports suggesting U.S. forces are on their way out of Iraq. 

So, does anyone have an answer?

Arens, active until the end of his long life, penned many articles dealing with the threat of Iran. In one of his last, he criticized the nuclear agreement that enabled Tehran to continue its expansive policies in the region. “While focusing on Iran’s nuclear development,” Arens wrote, “the U.S. and the other signatories missed the main target: Iran’s aggressive plans in the Middle East. They did not understand who they were dealing with.”

Arens was right. If he were alive, perhaps he would feel some sense of satisfaction that the tables have turned on Iran. This time, it was Iran’s leaders who didn’t understand with whom they were dealing. 

Perhaps their mistake emanated from reading too many analyses by too many experts — American experts, Israeli experts, European and Arab experts. Until a week ago, most of those experts held pretty much the same view.

Maybe Iranian leaders were listening to Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post when Robinson said President Donald Trump has a “very strong instinct against taking military action.” Maybe they believed Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security when he explained, “Again and again, Trump has shown himself to be all talk and no action.” Maybe they listened to Emily Meierding, an author and assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, who wrote “the Trump administration seems to have gradually recognized the political price it could pay for conflict escalation.”


The experts have had to reverse course.

Of course, the jury is still out on Trump’s decision. Yet, instead of explaining why all-talk-no-action Trump is a no-substance president, we now have to explain how Trump just showed he can be an all-talk-all-action president.

“While focusing on Iran’s nuclear development,” Arens wrote, “the U.S. and the other signatories missed the main target: Iran’s aggressive plans in the Middle East. They did not understand who they were dealing with.”

Trump’s unpredictability is predictable. In fact, it was a campaign promise — one of many he kept amid the puzzlement of people accustomed to politicians who never do what they say they’ll do.

A protest outside the U.S. Consulate on Jan. 5 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In April 2016, in a rare campaign speech addressing foreign policy, Trump said, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”

For the next three years, Trump — predictably — pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, then — unpredictably — refrained from acting against Iran after a series of provocations. But then he ordered the killing of a top Iranian general. Reportedly, his team was surprised by his decision. Perhaps Soleimani thought he was immune to assassination. Perhaps Iranian leaders thought the United States no longer had the will to take a risk in the fight against them.

Trump took that risk. His critics, who say the decision to kill Soleimani might lead to war, aren’t wrong. Iran could test the resolve of the U.S. by retaliating. Trump might surprise them by showing he has the resolve they thought he lacked. This could lead to a war no one intended. 

Is resolve a cause of war or a foundation of stability? Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Is unpredictability a cause of war or a foundation of stability? Sometimes it’s this and sometimes it’s that. The Cold War was an era of greatly needed predictability, lest miscalculation lead to nuclear war. Hence, the first Bush, a Cold War era graduate, was a predictable president. He told Iraq what he was going to do next every step of the way — then responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in a predictable fashion.

As defense minister, Arens argued that Israel’s failure to respond to Iraqi Scud missiles would erode Israel’s power of deterrence against its neighbors. As far as I can tell from conversations I had with him over the years, he continued to believe the war indeed harmed Israel’s deterrence. Arens and the leaders of Israel’s military wondered during and after the war if Iraq indeed had any chemical or biological weapons capable of reaching Israel. If so, why didn’t Hussein use them? Was he deterred by Israel’s rumored weapons of mass destruction and afraid to cross a line?

It is not easy to measure the degree to which deterrence is effective.

Iran probably isn’t worried about a possible U.S. invasion. But it likely is worried today more than it was a week ago, and must consider its next moves much more carefully. Trump’s surprise was an act of deterrence and like every such act, it carries risks. If the enemy is not deterred, one must double down or back down. When one doubles down, one exposes oneself to overreach. Documents seized in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion demonstrated how Hussein deterred and erred. He wanted the world (especially Iran) to believe he had weapons of mass destruction. His success in his quest to deter Iran opened the door for the invasion of the American-led coalition. 

In April 2016, in a rare campaign speech addressing foreign policy, Trump said, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.”

Yet, all concerned parties who rightly worry about the prospect of war ought to remember that the U.S. is much stronger than Iran. Iran should be more worried about possible miscalculation and unexpected escalation of hostilities. The president has said he isn’t seeking to fight a war in the Middle East but is prepared to act. The more Iran’s leaders believe retaliation against the U.S. might lead to war, the less likely they are to respond. The best way for the U.S. to avoid war is to lead Iran to think it’s prepared to fight, which is what Trump stated. 

Ironically, Trump’s Democratic rivals inadvertently helped him send the same message to Iran. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this week, “I believe the first course of action is for the Congress to take immediate steps to restrain President Trump from plunging our nation into yet another endless war,” he essentially told Iran to hold back. His message to Iran could be taken as: Wait for us and get better terms of negotiation; wait for us and get a more predictable policy; wait for us because we are much more opposed to war than Trump.

Oddly, this also is a message that might give Iran a reason to avoid retaliation. Why retaliate now and risk escalation before the November election?

What is the U.S. trying to achieve by deterrence? Trump doesn’t want Iran to attack U.S. forces. That’s a good reason to send a decisive signal that retaliation is unacceptable. But what if Iran avoids action against American forces? Would that be enough to calm the Trump administration? 

[Bernie Sanders’] message to Iran could be taken as: Wait for us and get better terms of negotiation; wait for us and get a more predictable policy.

The United States puts pressure on Iran through economic sanctions and that pressure seems to be working. Iran’s economy is hobbled; Iranians have protested fuel hikes and their leaders, starting last fall in multiple cities. Still, Iran isn’t backing down. It announced that it no longer is committed to the limitations of the nuclear agreement (after Soleimani’s death, European Union leaders aren’t hopeful the pact can be saved). It keeps its operations running in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. If deterrence means it can still do all these things, as long as it doesn’t hurt Americans, that’s a path Iran might take.

However, there needs to be more than that if the goal is to curb Iran’s disruptive policies of expansionist radicalism. There needs to be action against Iranian forces and programs. Israeli leaders are worried about Iran’s Precision Missile Project. This project aims to make the next war — the one that could come in 2020 — much more painful than the one in 1991. At that time, Iraqi missiles were primitive, inaccurate and in most cases, ineffective. Today, Iran’s missiles likely will be accurate and effective. They will hit their targets, killing and maiming thousands of Israelis, making the war traumatic and more like the 1973 Yom Kippur War than the 1991 Persian Gulf War. 

The INSS, in somewhat cryptic language, recommended Israel “reduce the gap of expectations of the public about the characteristics of the war and its possible consequences.” In a conversation with intelligence expert professor Uri Bar Joseph three weeks ago (available on my podcast on jewishjournal.com), the language was more direct: Bar Joseph believes Israelis aren’t ready for war. They think a war against Iran will be like the Persian Gulf War, or like an operation against Hamas in Gaza — some disruption to life, but just a few casualties from incoming missiles. He believes the actual war and its high cost will shock Israelis to the core. 

The leaders of Iran thought the United States no longer had the will to take a risk in the fight against them.

So what is next? 

Iran must decide if, how and when to respond to the Soleimani killing.

Trump must decide what happens if Iran escalates, and what happens if it doesn’t. In this case, options are clearer, as they are with Israel and other Arab countries that must decide how to act if Iran doesn’t escalate and moves forward with its programs of expansion, missile accuracy and nuclear development. 

As senior officials in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C. ponder their next moves, their calculations are based on the assumption that Iran — as academic and writer Walter Russel Mead defined it from his conversation with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — “is in a box.” The United States and Israel believe the combination of America’s moves to exclude Iranian oil from world markets, Israel’s constant harassment of Iranian forces, and the proved effectiveness of U.S. sanctions forces Iran to make hard choices as it struggles to live in this box. They also believe that what Trump did last week will somewhat deter Iran from trying violent means to release itself from this box.

In the Middle East, a thick plot only thickens.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.