Will U.S. President Donald Trump's gamble in the Mideast pay off or prove to be a costly blunder? Western officials and analysts say Iran's measured response to date to the slaying of its top general, Qassem Soleimani, shows Tehran has no appetite for a head-to-head confrontation with Washington.
But they warn the Islamic Republic's long-term goal remains to push the U.S. out of the Mideast — as underlined this week by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He recently described the missile barrage targeting Iraqi bases housing American troops as a "slap on the face" to the U.S., but noted it wouldn't be a sufficient reprisal for Soleimani's death.
And so the long struggle between America and Iran has entered a new phase.
Opinion is divided about whether Trump's decision to authorize the elimination of Soleimani, a master practitioner of asymmetric warfare and the commander of the country's elite Quds Force, will contain Iran in the short term. But few doubt the Trump-ordered killing marks a critical turning point and has shaken up conventional calculations in the region.
By targeting Soleimani, Washington went "beyond what Iran had factored in as the cost of business," said Jack Watling of Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London research organization specializing in defense issues. He said the escalation and provocative attacks Iran and its proxies had mounted across the Middle East the past few months were an attempt to force negotiations to end the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. after Trump pulled America out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal struck by Tehran and six international powers.
Trump sought to force Iran to make further nuclear concessions and to link any new deal with a commitment by Tehran to curb its expansionism.
"Iran could ramp up the pressure on the U.S. because it calculated that the U.S. feared a major military escalation more, given the scale of damage Iran could inflict on U.S. interests in the region," Watling said. That estimation no longer holds true and Soleimani's death has broken "the managed escalation cycle" from Iran's perspective.
"Now, Iran must carefully reassess its assumptions as to how the U.S. will respond to its attacks," he added.
And with Trump, that's going to be difficult, as Iran's leaders are discovering after encouraging, according to U.S. officials, Iraqi Shiite militias to launch more than a dozen attacks on facilities housing American troops in Iraq since October and lashing out at America's Gulf allies.
As a candidate, Trump made clear that he values inconsistency and disruption as tactical tools. "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," he remarked in 2016. His conduct of policy toward North Korea has been anything but predictable — so, too, with his handling of U.S. allies, who were left last week fuming at not being forewarned of the drone strike that took out Soleimani.
For Trump's foreign policy critics, the drone strike, which also killed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, is evidence of presidential impulsiveness in international affairs and a corrosive disregard for rules-based norms, giving other nations the model down the road to abandon convention and diplomacy when it suits their purposes, leading to greater international disorder and insecurity.
They also question the timing of the attack, saying the U.S. has squandered growing anti-Iranian feeling in Iraq.
Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, noted that the drone strike came as Iraqis were demonstrating against Tehran's growing influence in their country. "The government is now demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Should that happen, Iranian influence inside Iraq will grow even greater and the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State would be dealt a terrible blow," he said in a commentary for the Chicago Tribune.
He also worries the strike has strengthened the hand of hardliners in Tehran. Protests demanding change in the country have given way to massive demonstrations of anger against the United States.
Even so, Trump's supporters say the president has halted a defeatist and passive slide — one that has seen Western powers worn down by Iran as the Islamic Republic pursues an expansionist vision of violently imposing an arc of power stretching from Tehran across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The drone strike was a risk, they acknowledge, but, despite concerns the targeted killing pushed the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, it also appears to have exposed Iran as weak, while at the same time eliminating Tehran's principal strategist and the chief recruiter of violent proxies in the region.
Killing Soleimani was an achievement in itself, Trump supporters say, as Soleimani was responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of Americans in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and his proxies have been behind terrorist plots in more than a dozen countries. And in Syria, where he was a key architect of the military comeback by President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, he facilitated the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Playing by "the rules" — which Iran doesn't observe — is fighting with one hand tied behind your back, Trump supporters say. "For Iran's rulers, it has been an article of faith that the U.S. would always be flummoxed by asymmetric and unconventional warfare, disciplines in which Soleimani excelled," tweeted Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
Balance of power
Trump's supporters say the killing has provided an opportunity for a reset in the region whereby the U.S. dictates more the terms of a new balance of power in the Gulf and is proactive rather than reactive.
Some independent analysts agree.
"Although Tehran can continue hitting at U.S. assets, it knows that any missile strike which results in the loss of American lives could be met with a tenfold response against Iranian bases in the region, and this is unlikely to be a price any Iranian commander would be prepared to pay," said RUSI's Watling.
Others say Iranian proxies in the region, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to militias in Iraq, will have to think twice, now that they, too, have been put on notice they will be targeted when they cross lines — the most crucial being killing Americans.
But Iran's weak response so far — a ballistic missile barrage on a pair of Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops caused minimal damage and led to no loss of American lives, thanks to Iran's tipping off Iraqi authorities beforehand — may be more a case of tactical patience, suggest some regional experts and former officials. "The fact that they notified the Iraqis and then struck in areas that would not have casualties was indicative of their desire, hopefully, to seek some kind of off-ramp after this," said General Joseph Votel, a former commander of U.S. Central Command.
He told Foreign Policy magazine: "I think we will have to wait and see if Iran is done. They have lots of capabilities and options."
More likely, Iran's allies and proxies in the Levant are going to engage in strong rhetoric without taking hasty actions, according to Lina Khatib of Britain's Chatham House. She said it remains too early to know for sure, citing as an example the absence of retaliation to the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the second-in-command of Hezbollah. "There were strong words and public vows to seek revenge for his killing, but ultimately there was no response," according to Khatib.
She believes Iran has only limited options to respond.
"Lebanon and Syria as spaces for revenge against the U.S. is unlikely," she said. There is no public appetite in Lebanon for war and Hezbollah is on the back foot there amid wide-ranging protests against the country's ruling political class, including against the Shiite group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hitting out at Americans in Syria would involve striking at bases that house not only U.S. troops but multinational forces, including Europeans.
"Attacking them would, therefore, put Iran in confrontation with other countries besides the U.S., which is not in Iran's interest," she said.