Late on January 2, 2020, President Trump ordered a U.S. strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qasim Suleimani, along with other senior figures in Iran-backed militias.
Q1: How important is the killing of this Iranian military leader?
A1: Qasim Suleimani led Iran’s security policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and his death is a strategic blow to Iran. Suleimani both maintained a network of proxies and managed their individual activities. In many ways, he was a soldier, a spy, and a diplomat all rolled into one. He was widely popular in Iran, in part because he was seen as instrumental in the defeat of the Islamic State group in Iraq. Iran will respond, forcing itself to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy considerations for years to come and drawing the United States into precisely the sort of shadowy battles the Pentagon has been trying to escape for more than a decade. As a consequence of this action, the United States will grow more enmeshed militarily in the Middle East despite President Trump’s avowed desire to leave the region.
Q2: Can Iran do much about this? Surely they’re no match for the U.S. military?
A2: Over 40 years, the Islamic Republic has honed its asymmetrical warfare capabilities. It lacks the forces, weapons, money, and technology to go head-to-head with the United States on the conventional battlefield, but it has poured money into proxy forces, intelligence operations, and deniable activities (including cyber warfare). Iran’s goal is often to impose costs on adversaries, covering its tracks enough so as to avoid direct blame but leaving enough clues as to reinforce awareness of Iran’s reach. The entire world will need to be on high alert for months or (more likely) years. Sophisticated economies with complex infrastructures have much more to lose than Iran, and Iran will seek to heighten those costs.
Q3: What will happen in the near term?
A3: Iran will almost certainly amplify the current political turmoil in Iraq, with a goal of pushing out U.S. forces this year, and they are likely to be successful. Iran will also put greater pressure on Lebanon, which is undergoing a political and economic crisis. Over the next few months I’d expect some attacks against shipping of unclear origins as well as low-scale violence in one or more Gulf Cooperation Council states that will be blamed on Iran. We may also see cyber attacks of some kind. An important part of the Iranian strategy will be to keep its actions sufficiently low-level to avoid an escalation toward full-scale war or blame.
Q4: What about the longer term?
A4: Iran has no interest in fighting the United States militarily. Instead, it will wage its battles economically and politically, seeking to persuade target populations that the costs of fighting Iran exceed the benefits. The Iranians will cast rising global tensions as a consequence of U.S. aggression, and they will seek to accentuate world leaders’ distrust of U.S. unilateralism. They will have moral support in this effort from Russia and China, which both have a strong interest in the United States losing global influence. India is likely to seek a middle ground. The Iranians are counting on the fact that they have less to lose than Western countries—and less to fear from their own population. Their strategy will be a long-term one intended to ensure that others capitulate before they do and that international solidarity against the Islamic Republic collapses.
Q5: Will this hasten the fall of the Islamic Republic?
A5: Displacing authoritarian regimes is hard, as the United States has been reminded in Venezuela in recent years. Dislodging Saddam Hussein took a full-scale U.S. invasion. President Trump is very unlikely to seek an invasion, and the probable outcome is that the Iranian government survives this confrontation.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS. Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). © 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved. ### The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.