Thankfully, President Donald Trump in his Wednesday morning speech on Iran’s missile attacks on US bases did not announce any new military action in retaliation. That is unambiguously a good thing.
Unfortunately, Trump also took a swaggering, threatening approach toward Iran — vowing to impose new sanctions and claiming that the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a major victory in America’s long struggle with Iran, one that will change its approach to the region.
“Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood. He should have been terminated long ago,” Trump said. “For far too long, all the way back to 1979, to be exact, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.”
Trump isn’t alone in this declaration of victory. Pundits and conservative foreign policy thinkers have been making similar arguments, claiming that the killing of Soleimani has single-handedly struck a major blow against Iran’s aggressive foreign policy.
“Decisive strike threw 11 years of Iranian strategic calculation into disarray. They must now completely reevaluate the utility of violence as a means to achieve their objectives,” tweeted John Noonan, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-OK). “A clear red line has been drawn, with action rather than words. Killing Americans is off limits.”
These comments from the president and his policy’s supporters are astonishingly premature. There is no guarantee that Iran’s missile attacks represent the end of its response to the killing of Soleimani, nor is there sufficient reason to believe that its longstanding policy of supporting militant proxies around the Middle East will end.
There are still a tremendous number of ways this could go wrong, ranging from Iranian military escalation on other fronts to a push for a nuclear weapon. Indeed, Iran already announced that it was ending its compliance with a key part of the nuclear deal — restrictions on uranium enrichment — in response to Soleimani’s killing.
In May 2003, former President George W. Bush infamously gave a speech declaring victory in the Iraq War in front of a banner labeled “Mission Accomplished.” It’s possible that Trump’s address could age similarly poorly.
Why it’s much, much too early to declare victory
The best case for declaring victory goes something like this: Qassem Soleimani was a uniquely talented Iranian general, a first-rate strategic mind with irreplaceable personal ties to Iranian proxies around the region. Killing him has disrupted Iranian schemes in countries from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen, and ended a round of Iranian provocations in Iraq throughout December that included the killing of an American contractor.
More broadly, the weakness of Iran’s retaliation exposes it as a paper tiger: a country that could only get away with its regional meddling so long as America didn’t retaliate. Now that it has, the Iranians will think twice about continuing Soleimani’s interventionist approach to the region.
This argument is questionable on multiple levels (there are, for example, very good reasons to think that Soleimani is more replaceable than widely thought). But fundamentally, the problem is that the argument makes an unwarranted leap from the short term to the long one: it assumes that what we saw last night represents some kind of fundamental shift in Iranian foreign policy away from military adventurism.
But the truth is we have no idea if that’s correct. We don’t know if the current attack represents the totality of Iran’s military response to the Soleimani killing — or, if it does, whether it also has some other kind of response up its sleeve. We don’t know what the consequences will be for America’s political position in the region, including its troop presence in Iraq, or Iranian politics — whether the “rally round the flag” effect derails a recent rise in anti-regime popular sentiment.
“How in the blazes would would we even know if this was a ‘win’ right now? We don’t have answers to any key questions,” writes Dan Nexon, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University.
The entire argument depends on a conjecture about Iran’s thinking: that it is so scared of US military power that a show of force will almost certainly cause it to back down. But there are good reasons to believe this is false. Iran has shown a significant willingness to suffer casualties in pursuit of its objectives before, losing 2,300 soldiers in Syria by its own (potentially low-balled) figures.
Why would a limited demonstration of American force cause it to back off a 40-year policy of throwing around its military weight by using proxy forces? Do Trump and his defenders seriously believe that Iran is both an aspiring regional hegemon willing to plot terrorist attacks around the world and a country so casualty-shy that the single killing of a commander would cause it to back down from these grand ambitions?
In fact, Trump may well have already incentivized one of Iran’s scariest forms of misbehavior: its nuclear program. In the immediate days after the strike on Soleimani, Iran announced that it would be shrugging off its restrictions on uranium enrichment under the nuclear deal that blocks its pathway to a bomb — in effect, clearing the way to stockpiling enough fissile material to produce a weapon if it so wants.
Given that the US president just demonstrated an increased willingness to attack Iran and no interest in returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, the Iranian regime might very well see a push for their own nuclear deterrent as a kind of justified retaliation for the hit on Soleimani (or simply as necessary for its own survival).
I don’t know that this will happen for sure. But neither Trump nor his fellow travelers declaring victory know that it won’t. The scenario merely illustrates how incredibly premature declarations of victory are, given that we have no idea what the actual strategic consequences will be in the long run.
One final note of caution: Trump’s aggressive tone toward Iran during the speech — his repeated insistence that neither Iran’s regional adventurism nor its nuclear ambitions will be tolerated — seems to commit him to more aggressive action in the future.
If the hawks are wrong, and Iran isn’t in fact cowed by the Soleimani hit for an extended period of time, then Trump might find himself once again needing to respond. Some observers are even interpreting his speech as a new policy, an indefinite commitment to use US military force to curb Iran’s ambitions.
“Stating flatly that Tehran’s policy of directing/fomenting terrorism won’t be tolerated requires [the] sort of sustained U.S. engagement/action candidate Trump resisted/criticized,” tweeted David Drucker, a reporter at the conservative Washington Examiner. “It’s as if he’s embraced neoconservative, Axis of Evil approach to Iran.”
If that’s the case, then Trump’s decision not to escalate today might be merely a temporary reprieve. It would be truly shocking if Iran doesn’t do anything provocative for the remainder of the Trump presidency. How will he handle this the next time around?