Following Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vow to inflict “severe retaliation” on Qassem Soleimani’s killers, US President Donald Trump raised the stakes by promising to hit 52 targets, including cultural sites, inside the country — one for each of the American hostages taken by Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Tehran retaliated by hitting two airbases that host US troops, with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif then stating that the retaliation was complete. Trump announced that “all is well” and both parties claimed they had scored points.
Trump said in a speech on Thursday that Iran seemed to be “standing down,” while Khamenei said that the missile strike was a “slap in the face” for the US. Observers seemed relieved as both sides indirectly expressed a desire to de-escalate, at least for now. However, de-escalation needs to be sustained by a follow-through strategy so that it does not fall into a conflict trap that will destroy the region.
It would be very destructive if the US strategy was drafted in a simplistic manner, such as “if the Iranians hit, we hit back harder.” Such a strategy could lead to an endless war of attrition. American policymakers seem to bank on the fact that their Iranian counterparts are logical, and that they believe entering into a confrontation with the US might be suicidal. Trump tweeted: “If Iran attacks an American base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way… and without hesitation,” threatening the full use of the might of the American military.
However, US policymakers should not assume that the Iranians follow the same logic as them, because they have different conditions and a different ideological background. Iran’s economy is in dismal shape because of the US sanctions. People are living under very dire conditions. The country has reached rock bottom; therefore there is nothing more for the regime to lose and an external confrontation might rally the people internally. In Iran, even though the people are not fond of the regime, they don’t want the country to turn into Iraq. The Iranian leadership has been very clever to promote this idea to the people: No matter how harsh the regime might be and how difficult the situation is, it is still better than if the US invaded Iran the same way it invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power.
The other dimension the US should understand is the ideological one. The Islamic Republic is a political regime based on an ideology. Former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, when asked about the economy, used to answer that “we did not make a revolution to slash the price of watermelon.” This is why, despite the economic incentive provided by the nuclear deal, Iran did not change its narrative or its course of action.
On the contrary, in order to show the Iranian people that it had not given up on its ideology, the concessions made on the nuclear front were compensated for by an increase in the activities of its regional proxies.
Iran’s leaders could confront and retaliate as brutally as you can imagine. We have to remember the Iran-Iraq War and the way the Iranians used waves of child soldiers to clear minefields prepared by their more sophisticated Iraqi counterparts. The Iranians would rather send all their fighters to die than capitulate in humiliation.
Bearing these two elements in mind, it is unlikely that Iran will be deterred by the US’ show of force or that it will be intimidated. In fact, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, made it clear that the killing of Soleimani will not make Iran change its course. He vowed to avenge Soleimani by getting US forces out of the region, despite Zarif’s claim that the retaliation is over.
In this setup, it is important for the US to have an intelligent and comprehensive strategy. The first fold of this should be preventative. The strategy should not be forecasting possible retaliation scenarios and drafting a counter-retaliation. The focus should be on how to contain and intercept possible retaliation scenarios. Nasrallah, in his speech, promised to hit back against the American military in the region. He promised to target military bases, battleships and personnel. In this respect, the US, along with its allies, should increase security measures, especially in the Gulf.
US policymakers should not assume that the Iranians follow the same logic as them.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Monitoring the communication networks of the Iranian regime is a requirement. The US needs to prevent it from mobilizing transnationally through deployments at strategic points. In parallel, diplomacy also needs to be activated. The demands that the US put forward to remove its sanctions — including asking Iran to dismantle its regional militia and give up on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs — are a nonstarter. Here, international diplomacy, particularly the Japanese angle, needs to be reactivated. Japan is not a Western country, nor does it have a colonial past in the region.
Ultimately, this situation needs a delicate balance and wisdom to prevent the region from falling into a bloody conflict trap.