The first reaction of many Americans to the news of Qassem Soleimani’s killing on January 3 was fear that this strike might lead to a war between the U.S. and Iran. This concern has been compounded through social media, in particular; the term “World War III” trended on Twitter. Certainly, some of this is lighthearted – or as “lighthearted” as a joke about global war can be – but worries about the prospects of a new American war in the Middle East are widespread.
However, the killing of Soleimani will not lead to World War III. In fact, it is highly unlikely to lead to a war at all – though ultimately that is in the hands of President Trump alone. For its part, Iran is exceedingly unlikely to escalate the shadow conflict with the U.S. to a point of warfare. There are several reasons for this.
First, while Iran hardly lacks fighting spirit, its military is not geared for a direct war. Moreover, Iranian policy has generally made a point to avoid reaching warfare with its neighbors – though Iran is not afraid of carrying out what would be considered risky operations to damage its foes.
Additionally, the Iranian military, writ large, is in poor shape, and it would not perform well in a military engagement. The sorry state of the conventional army is a product of both international isolation – which has limited procurement possibilities – and domestic politics – where the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a parallel military outfit, has consistently received greater priority than the conventional army has received.
Furthermore, Iran is currently under an arms embargo that is not slated to end until October 2020. Throughout the four decades of the Islamic Republic, the country has recurrently faced similar embargoes. These embargoes limit its access to both finished products and support for delivered systems. As a result, Iran has had to maintain outdated equipment – including systems delivered before the Shah fell – and supplement these with locally manufactured products, which are often amalgamated versions of existing hardware.
The picture is not universally negative, however. Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles were able to down a U.S. reconnaissance drone last summer, for example. But the rest of the military would struggle to perform, particularly in a protracted war. The weakened state of the military, by design or not, is also convenient for the Islamic Republic’s leadership, which does not otherwise need to fear a coup from the distrusted regular forces.
As was discussed in another post after the killing of Soleimani, the main thrust of Iranian deterrence is on the IRGC’s offensive missile forces and network of allied or friendly militias throughout the region. These assets neatly complement each other: much of Iran’s short-range missiles or rockets have found their way into the hands of the country’s non-state partners in the region. Ansar Allah, the Yemeni rebel group, claims to have locally manufactured some missiles – which look curiously similar to Iranian-made models – of ranges long enough to penetrate deep into Saudi Arabia.
These realities – a weak conventional force but a comparatively powerful irregular force with regional presence – are a feature of the foreign policy approach under the Islamic Republic. The incoming Iranian government’s dislike (to put it mildly) of American support for the Shah led to the souring of relations in the immediate aftermath of the Shah’s ouster. Long-standing suspicion of the Soviet Union, a hangover of concern about Russian Empire expansionism, precluded Iran turning to the USSR for superpower backing. So, the country made its friends, starting first with Hezbollah and then, over time, carefully building up its partners around the region in other countries. These ties with Iran go far deeper than just one man, though Soleimani quarterbacked much of the cultivation of these groups.
The reliance on irregular tools comes with its own set of challenges, but it means Iran does not need to compete 1:1 with the militaries of the region that can access far more sophisticated weapons and training than Iran can. It has paid dividends over time, and Iran would not abandon this policy overnight. By contrast, the one conventional war the Islamic Republic did fight – with Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s – was devastating and satisfied precious few goals. Iran is regularly derided as a “rogue” state, but the desires of its leaders are similar to those of the leaders of any other country: to remain in power. Warfare that presents a potentially existential threat militates against that wish.
Moreover, to play with semantics, to be a “world war,” there would need to be substantial numbers of states involved – on both sides. The U.S. might be able to count on some allies in a war with Iran, but Iran would have few to call upon. Tehran has sought to move closer to Moscow and Beijing in recent years, for the most part shedding historical concerns about the former in service of enlisting friends who might push back against the United States. However, neither Russia nor China would be happy about being dragged into Iran’s battles – hence why neither has inked an alliance with Tehran. They did recently engage in a joint military exercise, but this is mainly symbolic. Russia and China would not come to Iran’s side in a war.
To illustrate the point, in Syria, Russia has consistently turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian or Iranian-backed targets – despite Russia and Iran being de facto partners in supporting President Bashar al-Assad. Russia strayed from this approach only once: after an accident saw the Syrian air defenses shoot down a Russian transport plane, which was targeted by mistake amid Israeli strikes. Russia publicly blamed Israel for the incident and made a show of transferring S-300s to bolster Syria’s forces, but otherwise has continued to ignore Israeli attacks that hit Iranian forces. China, which has deepened economies ties with Iran and may be a source for military equipment in the future, has no appetite for involving itself in foreign wars. Iran is thus under zero delusions about whether any major power would come to its aid in a fight.
None of this commentary is to say the situation after the killing of Soleimani is not volatile. While the U.S. has seen him as a villain for much of the last few decades, he is revered in Iran, which has held massive rallies in his honor. It’s hard to make the case that this outpouring of grief isn’t genuine. Iran’s political and military leaders have all publicly pledged retaliation, meaning that failing to respond would raise serious questions about the credibility of Iran’s deterrence. The country has a powerful arsenal of irregular weapons, and it intends to apply them in a manner sufficient to avenge Soleimani’s loss. Whether a war breaks out depends on the manner of Iran’s retaliation and how the U.S. responds to it.
That the potential for war rests in President Trump’s response is certainly of concern for his critics. The opposition Democratic Party has sought to limit his authority in this regard. In another light, this could also be seen as Congress looking to claw back a bit of the authority it has generally yielded to the executive branch when it comes to war-making.
The Democratic Party’s candidates for the 2020 presidential elections have made a point to identify President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord as a “strategic mistake,” as former mayor Pete Buttigieg called it. After the Soleimani strike, Senator Elizabeth Warren said President Trump has brought the U.S. “to the edge of war.”
Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that President Trump is looking to ratchet up tensions with Iran over domestic politics, namely the impeachment process. However, such analysis fails to account for the fact that President Trump has gleefully embraced that process as a potential boon for his re-election bid.
More realistically, the last few years of the Trump administration’s policy on Iran have been quite revealing. He does not seem to want war with Iran at all. His repeated statements that he is not seeking “regime change” in Iran appear to be true insomuch as they relate to military action. It is an open question whether his economic sanctions push is premised on a hope that they lead to the fall of the current regime. There is no doubt that he would welcome the collapse of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s rule if it occurred. Moreover, President Trump doesn’t appear to have mourned the demise of nuclear dialogue with Iran, suggesting patience in letting the pressure bite. Even so, war has not been in the cards.
President Trump views uncertainty about his true intention as a positive aspect of his policy. While running as a candidate in 2016, he made a speech extolling the values of just that approach. Nevertheless, he has indicated a strong aversion to embroiling the U.S. in a new war and periodically aims to wind down the American presence in ongoing conflicts. On multiple occasions, he has ordered the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, moves that were later pared back under pressure from both the Department of Defense and Congress. He is also keenly interested in ending the war in Afghanistan, choosing to pursue dialogue with the Taliban that could lead to the exit of American troops from that conflict. Under President Trump’s watch, the U.S. has deliberately carried out airstrikes (these too, the Russians tacitly green-lighted) against Assad, but symbolically, without committing the U.S. to Assad’s ouster.
On Iran, President Trump has had plenty of opportunities to dial up military pressure but refrained from doing so. For one, some advisers see the deployment in Syria as potentially useful against Iranian machinations in that country, but evidently, this is not strong enough incentive for President Trump to back an open-ended presence. Throughout the summer of 2019, a series of tanker sabotages in the Strait of Hormuz, allegedly by Iran, led the president to note that the U.S. is less dependent on oil emanating from that route now than it has been in some time, thus downplaying the impact of the saboteurs. The alleged Iranian strike on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 would – especially if it originated from Iran directly, as some news organizations have reported – in theory provide a perfect casus belli for action against Iran. But on this too, President Trump refrained from obliging, which hardly seems to fit a president supposedly bent on engaging in a war.
Where the president has been firmer is on the security of American military and diplomatic personnel. The downing of an RQ-4 in June 2019, in the president’s telling, led him to order and then cancel strikes. He said that he did so because the response to the destruction of an unmanned device would not have been proportional. The U.S. was muted throughout 2019 as random shells of uncertain origin landed near installations in Iraq housing American troops. But within days of the killing of a defense contractor and the bloodless partial-storming of an American embassy, President Trump ordered the killing of one of Iran’s top generals. His point was, if hit, the U.S. would not fail to escalate matters to a point where Iran could not match.
The message from this is presumably not lost on the Iranians, which weighs on the Iranian response to Soleimani’s death. Iran faces plenty of constraints, even as the country’s leadership beats the war drums. Iran is, as noted above, not eager for a direct war. But its response to Soleimani’s killing must take other matters into account, too. The country’s approach to the post-nuclear deal environment, for example, has been to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its EU allies – particularly the U.K., France, and Germany – which were party to the nuclear deal in 2015 and not especially enthusiastic about President Trump’s walking away from it in 2018. Carrying out a vicious response to Soleimani’s killing might satisfy hardliners’ rage but would alienate Iran from the EU, playing into President Trump’s hands as he looks to enlist other countries in pressing sanctions on the Iranian economy.
As Iran works on a suitable retaliatory measure that will not also cause further escalation from the U.S., the country is now comfortable to play up the public support for Soleimani among some Iraqis and at home. In Iran’s view, getting the Iraqi parliament to kick the U.S. out of Iraq would be a big win. Perhaps the overall Iranian response will be further pinpricks of varying degrees, designed in harmony with the broader Iranian approach over the last few decades: demonstrating resilience and cunning while avoiding outright war. This doesn’t make for World War III, which so far lives only in memes on the Internet. May it stay there.