(Bloomberg Opinion) – After the US has removed Qassem Soleimani, arguably the most important military person in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, Tehran is forced to extreme prejudice according to conventional opinion. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has promised "severe retaliation" and his regime has released videos of thousands of Iranian mourners seeking revenge.
What could that mean? Many commentators – not only in Iran or the United States – claim that a new war in the Middle East is inevitable. Some compare the murder of Soleimani with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the hashtag #WWIII is announced on Twitter.
Not so fast. Iran may have many opportunities to wreak havoc against American interests and allies in the Middle East, and many allies and proxies through which this can happen. But there is also a strong reason to stop and think again. Aside from expressions of outrage in Tehran – and fear elsewhere – the cold reality is that Iran cannot afford war with a far more powerful opponent.
Any retaliation that leads to war will do enormous harm to the Islamic Republic. Even if it costs more American blood and treasure than President Trump imagines, the price for the Iranian nation will be many times higher. This is a result that the regime in Tehran has deliberately tried to avoid.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic like to see themselves as strategic thinkers, with a keen understanding of their opponents and a knack for anticipating their next steps. But they clearly misjudged Donald Trump. Convinced that the American President would do anything to avoid war, they have been provoking the US with increasingly intense provocations for months.
Their goal was to force the United States to ease the economic sanctions that Trump had imposed after withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018. The Tehran regime initially tried to wait for the sanctions, but found that they were more painful than expected.
A year later, in May 2019, they launched an intimidation campaign by attacking merchant shipping in international waters, but were careful not to sink ships or kill anyone.
Tehran expected to see a disproportionate response from the United States that was just before the war, but was sufficient to trigger a crisis, and to initiate international diplomatic interventions to get both sides to withdraw. In this scenario, Iran would be "persuaded" to stop its attacks and the US to ease the sanctions.
When the first round of provocation received no response, the Iranians shot down an American military drone. Trump had canceled a retaliation at the last minute, but announced a "red line": The death of an Iranian-born American would require a military response.
Iran therefore increased the deployment by launching a major attack on Saudi oil plants. The United States moved troops to Saudi Arabia, but again did not react kinetically.
At this point, the Iranian alternate militias, particularly the Kata & ib; Hezbollah, launched a series of rocket attacks on US-related facilities in Iraq. This campaign culminated in an attack last week that killed an American contractor, several Iraqi police and soldiers, and wounded four American troops.
During this calibrated test of the limits of American patience, the regime in Tehran was certain that Trump did not want a war. However, when his red line was crossed, they found that he was not as conflict-prone as they had thought.
First, U.S. strikes based on the Kata & ibis Hezbollah killed at least 24 militia cadres. After the group members violently besieged and damaged the US embassy in Baghdad, the Trump administration claimed it had gained credible evidence that Soleimani was planning further attacks on American interests and personnel in Iraq.
Evidence of this has not been provided, but such behavior is consistent with Iran's escalating provocations. Soleimani's presence in Iraq, where he traveled with Hezbollah's leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, will have increased suspicions. Both were killed in the US drone attack, and several other pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders may have been killed in a subsequent strike last night.
What now? Iranians can no longer have illusions about Trump's appetite to answer provocations with disproportionate force. The assassination of Soleimani was the most serious attack on the Iranian political apparatus that the United States could have waged outside of Iran. Khamenei must now know that "severe retaliation" by Iran could lead to an even more devastating American response. Maybe he's still expecting Trump to not want a full war, but this gamble is much riskier than it was last week, last month, or last year.
The smarter option for Iran would be to take Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seriously when he says the US is now looking to de-escalate and limit its retaliation to thundering threats. The regime could instead reap international sympathy for the murder of Soleimani, even if it does not deserve it. And the pouring out of national mourning could distract the Iranians from the recent slaughter of hundreds of their countrymen ordered by Khamenei and executed by Soleimani and other commanders.
If the regime is driven by ideology and emotions, it will live up to Khamenei's word and will strike back hard – at a high price for Iran and the entire region. But if it's rational as it is in a crisis, it will take the opportunity to take a long break in the escalation pattern with the US and find a new strategy that doesn't pull everyone towards a devastating conflict.
Contact the author of this story: Hussein Ibish at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to contact the editor responsible for this story: Bobby Ghosh at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and their owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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