Should the missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops turn out to be the extent of Iran’s response, then the operation to kill Iranian terrorist leader Qassem Soleimani will turn out to be a major victory for President Trump.
Though the Pentagon has yet to release a full damage assessment, preliminary reports suggest that Iran’s action resulted in no U.S. casualties. After days of tough talk and chants of, “Death to America,” Iranian officials are now claiming that they have no interest in further escalation if the United States does not retaliate. This could be it.
If this is indeed the case, there is no doubt that the U.S. dealt a far more devastating blow to Iran than it absorbed in return. Soleimani was one of the most important figures in Iran and the architect of its regional strategy to extend the regime’s influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. He directed global terrorist attacks, targeted U.S. troops in Iraq, aided Bashar Assad in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of his own people, supported the terrorist group Hezbollah, and fueled the civil war in Yemen by supporting the radical Houthi movement.
Analysts of all ideological stripes argued that Soleimani was irreplaceable to Iran and that his death was a devastating blow to the regime. The major debate concerned whether the benefits of killing Soleimani were worth the risks of triggering an Iranian response that would eventually escalate into a bloody war.
As I pointed out before, Trump most likely viewed taking out Soleimani as a calculated risk worth taking. With an economy being crippled by sanctions, regular domestic protests, and military stretching throughout the Middle East, the Iranian regime could afford a major escalation a lot less than the U.S. To Iran’s rulers, war with the U.S. poses an existential threat.
The early indications are that Iran blinked. The regime dramatically launched ballistic missiles toward U.S. troops and made a big show of it to the world, but it also chose targets where it knew Americans were expecting an attack and would be able to take preparations to reduce or avoid casualties. It was telling that even the threats Iran issued tonight, that if the U.S. retaliates, Iran will attack Israel and Dubai, suggest an unwillingness to engage the U.S. were it to risk actual casualties.
It’s possible that, as the sun rises in Iraq and there is a full assessment, it will reveal there were, in fact, casualties. It also is possible that, even in the absence of casualties, Trump could choose to retaliate in a way that triggers another response from Iran. But that seems unlikely. Remember, when Trump backed off retaliating for Iran’s downing of a drone in June, he said the decisive factor was that it was unmanned. If there were no casualties in this case, Trump has an opening to declare victory and avoid a retaliatory strike. In any event, he certainly can take a pause before making any dramatic moves.
This seemed to be what he was indicating when he declared, “All is well,” on Twitter.
By taking out Soleimani, Trump not only undermined Iran’s capabilities in the region, but he reestablished deterrence by demonstrating that the U.S. had the means, the intelligence assets, and the will to strike Iran hard. Barring casualties, this attack can be shrugged off by the U.S. The cost-benefit analysis is not even close.