Protesters shout slogans against the United States following a US airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on January 3, 2020. Photo: Aamir Qureshi / AFP

On Friday morning a US drone strike killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad International Airport. Almost certainly Iran will respond in a variety of ways designed to damage the US. Its response will range from militia-based attacks to terrorism to cyber to economic attacks, in all probability including multiple options. But barring any outsized response by US President Donald Trump, talk of uncontrolled escalation is probably exaggerated.

As is the pattern with Iranian and other anti-status-quo groups, Soleimani did not see himself bound by the rules of a system he sought to overthrow. He viewed himself as a diplomat, a politician, and a military commander, afforded the best protections of each of those three worlds. Yet at the same time he abused the rules of international politics, ignoring protections for diplomats and civilians. In the end, the US upended this hypocrisy and Soleimani had none of the protections he had counted on.

Soleimani led the Quds, in effect the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ special forces, but they were more than that. They were a proxy force, an arm of foreign policy, and the source of instability from Lebanon to Syria and by some accounts even into Latin America. They terrorized and killed with abandon. Chalk one up for the good guys. It is satisfying to see justice served.

But satisfying action is not always good policy. Policy seeks to achieve goals with available means. Good policy should have a high likelihood of achieving those goals. Bad policy, on the other hand, would have a lower likelihood of achieving those goals. So the first-order question is, what were America’s goals vis-à-vis Iran as a result of this particular attack?

There are at least two possible answers. First, perhaps the US simply saw an opportunity to kill a longtime adversary and leapt at the chance. While the opportunity probably influenced the decision to kill Soleimani, it is unlikely the only or even primary reason. Given his recent proclivity to parade around the frontlines of conflict, it is probable that the US had earlier opportunities to eliminate Soleimani.

Because this attack arose in almost immediate response to Iran-backed forces’ brief occupation of the US Embassy grounds in Baghdad, it appears the attack was designed to moderate or deter Iranian behavior. Therefore, in determining whether this was good policy, one must ask whether the killing of Soleimani is likely to moderate Iranian behavior.

There are a couple reasons to think that Iran is unlikely to rein in its aggressive international behavior as a result of the attack. First, domestically, anyone arguing for rapprochement with the US is already weak and was further weakened by this attack. Hardliners will point out that Washington breaches its agreements such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) and “assassinates our officials.” There will be few, if any, voices for moderation within Iran.

It is difficult to argue that America’s killing of Soleimani is likely to achieve the goal of moderating Iran’s international behavior. Rather, just the opposite is likely to occur, with a flurry of violence and other destructive action emanating from Iran

Second, internationally, Iran’s reputation is on the line. If it does not respond forcefully, it will be argued, more attacks will follow. Iran must show not only the US, but also Israel and others, that force will be met with force. In fact, it is likely that those arguing for retaliation will also argue for escalation (a larger use of violence) to demonstrate that any further attacks on Iran are unwise.

It is thus difficult to argue that America’s killing of Soleimani is likely to achieve the goal of moderating Iran’s international behavior. Rather, just the opposite is likely to occur, with a flurry of violence and other destructive action emanating from Iran.

The next question, then, is how Iran will respond. That response is likely to be escalatory, but it is not clear just how escalatory. The response is also likely to be multifaceted, possibly including militia violence, terrorism, cyberattacks, other gray-zone actions, and economic attacks, all backed by the Revolutionary Guards. Whatever the specifics, Iran will impose short- and long-term costs through escalatory behavior. Look for destructive economic acts, terrorism especially against Americans, and further destabilization in Iraq.

A more important question is how the US will respond if Iran decides to escalate. This answer will go some way to determining whether an uncontrolled spiral of escalating violence occurs.

It is increasingly difficult to read the foreign-policy tea leaves in a US administration that is unattached to traditional expectations and norms of behavior. Indeed, the Trump administration seems almost to revel in breaching protocol, even where there is good reason for that protocol.

Equally troublesome, there seems to be no set of internal procedures or mechanisms for dealing with foreign-policy issues. Trump likes to shoot from the hip and trusts himself first and his family second. Analysis of past foreign-policy crises tells us that it is valuable to have dissenting voices at the table. But Trump seems threatened by these voices and has thus sought to limit their involvement. Policy is therefore somewhat free-floating and it appears that whoever had the president’s ear last and longest decides the policy. In this situation, one wonders how influential Jared Kushner was.

Whatever the case, there will be loud arguments from hawks in the Trump administration to strike back, and probably in an escalatory fashion. While escalating is problematic in its own right because it can lead to a larger conflagration, in this case it is especially troublesome because the initial goal (moderating Iran’s behavior) may become lost in the heat of events. Instead of moderating long-term Iranian behavior, the goal becomes to punish Iran until it stops escalating. This is how a state slides into a quagmire of unending tit-for-tat violence.

Alternatively, US escalation could lead to a spiral of uncontrolled violence possibly culminating in interstate war. Here, the danger is not that the escalatory responses have no clear ending but rather that they combust into a larger inferno. Here we have an out-of-control escalatory spiral from which no one has an exit strategy. This is not policy aforethought. This is two raging fighters hurting each other and a lot of people around them.

The irony of Trump leading the US to war in Iran should not be lost on American voters. Trump, like his predecessor Barack Obama, has sought to reduce the US presence in the Middle East. While such a policy has reputation costs (say, in US relations with the Kurds and other potential allies), it makes a lot of strategic sense for the US to get out of the Middle East. Trump seems genuine in his desire to withdraw US forces, which makes it all the more likely that he did not think through the killing of Soleimani and that his advisers did not explain the likely response from Iran.

So even barring outright war, any long-term violent engagement with Iran would undercut Trump’s goal of withdrawing from the Middle East, and depending on how far it went, could land the US back in a swamp much worse than Iraq.

Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly to some, Trump seems quite genuine on three points. First, he sees war as counterproductive. Second, he seems fuller of bluster than actual aggression. To demonstrate both points, in the past he has backed off responses that might cause war, such as attacking Iranian installations last June. Third, he is loath to increase US overseas obligations, as extended or direct conflict with Iran would require. So there are significant countervailing tendencies embraced by the president that make escalation less likely than many of his critics claim.

A war with Iran would have notable costs for the US in the Muslim world. There are important distinctions to be made between war with a Shiite state and war with a Sunni state, but ultimately any war in the Muslim world is “bad optics.” This is especially bad timing because the US has finally managed to focus the Muslim world on China and its treatment of the Uighurs. Another war would return the focus to the United States.

In summary, conflict between Iran and the United States will increase for the foreseeable future. Iran is unlikely to be cowed by US threats, though the conflict is also unlikely to escalate into full-blown war. The most important question is how the US will respond to Iran’s predictable escalation.

There is one final and important issue that seems missing in many analyses: Who will benefit from increased and prolonged conflict between Iran and the US?

First, hardliners in Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have long wanted the US to attack Iran. Israel is no longer willing to attack Iran itself because Iran, under the direction of Soleimani, has placed thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon. These weapons are controlled by Iran-supported Hezbollah. Israel is thus deterred from attacking Iran in all but existential circumstances. In the case of Iran, Israel can achieve its goals only through another party.

The other state that will gain from US-Iranian hostilities is China. President Xi Jinping has made nearly as many missteps as Donald Trump in the last few years. But ineptness in Washington has always pulled Xi’s chestnuts out of the fire. In this case, the recent US move to refocus its attention on China, the only true threat to liberalism, is once again undermined.

Even among those who differ on particular policies, the centrality of China is clear. Whether it is a strategic challenger or a responsible stakeholder, it seems clear that only one actor should matter to the US in the 21st century: China. And yet, once again, America is tilting at windmills in the Middle East.

Michael Tkacik

Michael Tkacik holds a PhD from the University of Maryland and a JD from Duke University. He has published articles in a variety of journals. Tkacik’s current research interests include the implications of China’s rise, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and nuclear-weapons policy across Asia. He is a professor of government and director of the School of Honors at Stephen F Austin State University in Texas.

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