On the precipice: Unknown unknowns in the Middle East, again

On the precipice: Unknown unknowns in the Middle East, again
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President Donald Trump delivered justice to Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commander of its Quds Force, on the tarmac of the Baghdad airport yesterday. According to the Pentagon, Soleimani "was developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq…" and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of other Americans. Trump’s action will trigger a series of unpredictable, but consequential events. Given the American experience in the Middle East since the first Iraq War in 1990 and the subsequent costs of blood and treasure, the administration needs to answer these four questions.

What is the Administration's Iranian strategy? The Trump strategy of maximum pressure on Iran has an ill-defined end state. Pulling out of the nuclear deal and imposing sanctions were measures designed to counter malign Iranian influence and actions in the Middle East. And yet, Iran has stronger influence today in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa than it did in 2016. Do the failures of maximum pressure require additional military action? Is the American goal an enfeebled, compliant Iranian state or regime change?

Is the Trump administration prepared for Iranian next steps? General James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump insulted UK's May, called Germany's Merkel 'stupid' in calls: report Mattis urges people to wear masks in PSA about 'nasty little virus' Dozens of GOP ex-national security officials to form group to back Biden: report MORE once observed that “no war is over until the enemy says it's over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” The Iranians will respond to Soleimani’s death. The regime will be determined to remain in power, quash internal dissent, retain their regional and international terror infrastructure, display strength to their regional adversaries, and inflict costs for this attack. The Iranians face one additional known uncertainty: Trump is not predictable. Does Trump wildly escalate to an attack on Tehran with threats of nuclear retaliation? Given the impeachment pressure and his own penchant for rash and unfiltered responses, the Iranians may exercise a degree of caution beyond what they would normally afford to a more establishment president. Or, they may not.

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The National Security Council is undoubtedly gaming multiple scenarios. The NSC should assume that the Iranians will accelerate their nuclear program while immediately threatening the American embassy compound in Baghdad in an effort to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq. 

Given their history, Iranians may also threaten commercial and oil channels through the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandab, potentially with Houthi proxies in Yemen.

The Iranians may also take a quid pro quo action by attacking an American ambassador, defense attaché, or commercial interests. Targets closer to Trump represent opportunities of higher value. Iran has capabilities and attack plans in place in South East Asia, Latin America, and portions of Europe. An attack outside of the Middle East, on a target associated with Trump, by an Iranian proxy such as Hezbollah is reasonably part of the threat calculation.

What are American next steps? Defining American goals and countering the Iranian response will be critical to map the Administration’s next steps in the days, weeks, and months. The administration must communicate intentions and mitigate miscalculation risks not only to Iran but also to allies.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel have interests which may not align with a presumptive American containment strategy. Their interests, in fact, may serve as an accelerant to confront the Iranian threat more aggressively. A reasonable but non-escalating next step may be to conduct military exercises and increase our naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz.

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Is there an off ramp? Given decades of war in the Middle East, the American people know that de-escalating a conflict is much harder than starting one. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Trump to hold outdoor rally in New Hampshire on Saturday Eighty-eight years of debt pieties MORE, unfortunately, has a leadership style which makes de-escalation to any conflict more difficult.

Trump has devalued the intelligence community, diplomats, and senior military officers and leads an interagency process that curbs dissent. As a result, the likelihood for robust analysis and recommendations is more remote. Second, Trump has diminished the importance and relevance of historic alliances and relationships, making it much more difficult to garner the international support necessary for any confrontation with Iran, whether proxy or direct. Finally, the current political divisions in the U.S. — coupled with impeachment pressures — may likely color the President’s actions and the public’s perceptions of his actions.

All of these factors make satisfactory de-escalation more difficult. Nevertheless, there will be an end state to a conflict with Iran, and the administration will need a clear and realistic path to that off ramp.

Qassem Soleimani’s death is a watershed moment in American-Iranian relations. President Trump and the American people stand on a precipice. 

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. He served as a Foreign Service Officer in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for more than a decade. In May of 2019, President Trump awarded Mr. Harden the Distinguished Service Award, the highest award in the Foreign Service, for “sustained extraordinary accomplishment in the conduct of the foreign policy.” Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden