(Bloomberg Opinion) – The U.S. airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, was not just a sharp move away from that Trump administration's policy towards Tehran. This also marks a major shift in the American response to Iranian influence and the Middle East provocations. President Donald Trump has gambled that an extraordinary escalation will allow him to regain control of an intensifying US-Iran confrontation. It can actually work. Dealing with the diplomatic and military case, however, requires far more skill and competence than Trump's team has shown so far.
Political scientist Robert Jervis once differentiated between the "spiral model" and the "deterrent model" of the conflict. If you hit an opponent in the spiral model, they'll just hit you back. Escalation creates escalation. In the deterrent model, hitting an enemy hard enough causes them to back away; An escalation or simply a demonstration of strength can cause de-escalation.
For the past two decades, the United States has largely followed the logic of the spiral model when dealing with Iran. Iranian forces and Iraqi deputies under Soleimani's command used improvised explosive devices to kill hundreds of American troops after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. However, the George W. Bush administration, which periodically faced Iraqi Shiite radicals under Iranian influence, largely refrained from targeting Iranian activists like Soleimani for fear of escalation with Tehran and a political backlash in the country Iraq.
The Barack Obama government also found the logic of the spiral model convincing. Obama has never doubted that the United States has greater power than Iran or any other competitor. However, he feared that these competitors had a greater intensity of interests in their home regions and believed that confrontation policies could simply provoke a confrontation.
In dealing with Iran, this government has exerted great economic, diplomatic and other pressure to reach a nuclear deal. But Obama was cautious about possible military or paramilitary confrontations with Iran and its representatives, whether in Iraq, Syria, or anywhere else. (The government responded militarily to attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on shipping at the entrance to the Red Sea late in Obama's presidency, but in a deliberately restrained, proportionate manner.)
Trump's approach was initially more difficult to categorize. In a sense, he pursued a policy of maximum antagonism by withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Tehran negotiated with the West in 2015 and imposing harsh economic sanctions. But after attacks on oil tankers, Saudi oil factories, and a U.S. drone, all of which were blamed on Iran by the U.S., Trump has repeatedly held back and pointed to the need to avoid a major conflict.
This recent escalation is an implicit admission that Trump's previous strategy had failed – this economic contradiction plus military reluctance had provoked Iran, but had not sufficiently deterred it. This failure was most recently confirmed by attacks by the militia on US facilities and personnel in Iraq and the impending siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve, which appeared to show that Tehran and his deputies could endanger American diplomats. Meanwhile, Trump's disorderly policies had raised doubts among U.S. partners across the Persian Gulf and across the region, fearing that Washington would not be able to defend them from Iranian attacks that American policy contributed to instigating.
Given this failure and the evidence that Soleimani was apparently planning further attacks, Trump climbed the escalation ladder several stages. The U.S. Armed Forces were not simply trying to interrupt or respond to attacks in preparation. You have killed two of the most important men in the Iranian influence network in the Middle East. Soleimani in particular was Iran's "indispensable man" in countries from Lebanon to Yemen. It was a symbol of Tehran's strategic reach in the region and resistance to the United States and other enemies.
The calculation used here seems to represent a shift from the spiral model to the deterrent model. Washington can shock Tehran and show how much the Iranian regime has to lose through further provocations. If Obama fears that the Iranian asymmetry of interests outweighs the American asymmetry of power, Trump now expects that the American asymmetry of power – its ability to inflict far more suffering on the Iranian regime than it can inflict on the United States – the asymmetrically intense Tehran's interests in will outweigh the region.
Calling gambling is an understatement. Soleimani may have been a hideous terrorist in American eyes, but he remains a national hero in Iran and there will be immense pressure for some form of retaliation. The Iranian Armed Forces and Plenipotentiaries are capable of attacking US military assets, diplomatic agencies and citizens in Iraq and throughout the Middle East either now or in the long term. Tehran could also respond with cyber attacks, further attacks on the Gulf's oil infrastructure, or proxy attacks on Israel. Tehran could remove the remaining restrictions on its nuclear program; it could and will likely use its influence on Iraqi politicians to drive US forces out of Iraq. There are many ways in which operational success in the United States can turn into a strategic setback or deeper confrontation.
Nevertheless, Trump's effort could pay off. The Iranian regime was historically aggressive, but not suicidal. Knowing that the US can and will target top regimes is likely to frighten Iranian officials as much as it annoys them. And while Iran had previously controlled the pace of confrontation – gradually increasing military pressure in response to US economic pressure – Washington has now demonstrated its ability to escalate in an unexpected and devastating manner. Washington may have miscalculated in the murder of Soleimani and Muhandis, but at the moment it is the Iranian leaders who certainly feel they have misjudged the enemy. This finding may indeed be sobering, as Tehran is considering whether it would benefit from an intensification of the confrontation.
One thing is certain: coping with the current crisis requires a higher quality of state work than the Trump administrative norm. The United States must protect or evacuate vulnerable personnel and individuals in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. It must formulate contingency plans to deal with potential Iranian reactions and what it will do if current shock treatment does not have the desired effect. It must maneuver at the same time so that this strike does not isolate America from international diplomacy regarding the Iranian nuclear problem and determine how it will react if Tehran uses its political power in Iraq to push for a US withdrawal.
The current status of the administration is not reassuring. Trump has torn, neglected or undermined diplomatic relations in the region and beyond in general, which would be very valuable at the moment. Tight messages and skilful policy implementation were not hallmarks of his presidency. Former foreign ministers like Dean Acheson and George Shultz have their hands full to deal with this crisis, and nobody in Washington looks like another Acheson or Shultz at the moment.
"The game has changed," Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned hours before the strike. True enough. We'll see if the Trump administration is ready for what's next.
To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu
How to contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and their owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he was a co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: State Art and World Order".
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