The conflict between Iran and the U.S. has taken its most significant step into the open. The attack on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s rocket attacks on Iraqi bases that host American troops have brought tensions to a boiling point. The administration claims that the strike on Soleimani was to respond to an Iranian-backed militia killing an American contractor in Iraq and prevent an imminent attack. With tensions rising, the U.S. needs to formulate a clear, comprehensive strategy to pressure Iran and prepare for further retaliation.
The decision to kill Soleimani has the potential to be the most consequential foreign policy decision of the Trump presidency to date. As commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was effectively the second most powerful man in Iran and responsible for the death of at least 603 American soldiers in Iraq. He directed the proxy forces crucial to Iran’s regional aggression. However, the U.S. already may face strategic consequences for the action with Iraq’s parliament voting to expel American troops.
The attack on Soleimani was in stark contrast to America’s at best indifferent posture towards Iran that stretches back decades and represents a bipartisan failure. The U.S. historically had taken few military responses to Iranian provocations, most notably when Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, killed 241 American soldiers in Beirut in 1983. More recently, Iran downed an American drone and attacked one of the world’s most important oil facilities at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia without any pushback.
Typically, when challenged with credible military threats, Iran has drawn in its horns. In response to Iran mining the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the U.S. sunk or severely damaged half of the Iranian navy in an afternoon. Shortly after this operation, Iran ended the Iran-Iraq war when the U.S. shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, not knowing the attack was an accident and fearing it signaled deeper American involvement.
Since the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran has relied heavily on proxy forces. That did not happen in this case. Instead, the missile strikes on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq originated from inside Iran. This marks a significant shift in Iran's approach.
Iran likely wants to show that its influence and capabilities have not died with Soleimani — though the attack reportedly resulted in zero U.S. or Iraqi casualties. However, it is unclear if Iran intends these strikes to be the first salvo of a more extensive campaign against Americans. The attacks may not be Iran’s only military response to Soleimani’s death, and Tehran may be weighing further conventional or asymmetric methods.
The U.S. needs response options since killing Soleimani, by itself, was likely not enough to prevent further Iranian aggression. President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE’s recent decisions show he is willing to respond with force to Iranian or proxy force attacks that kill Americans. Early reports indicate that Iran may have calibrated its response to avoid crossing this red line and warned Iraq about the impending attack.
Whether or not Iran chooses to continue these attacks against American positions in the Middle East, the administration must maintain its red line against killing Americans.
For the time being, U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and the U.S. should prepare for attacks on its soldiers and partner forces there and in Syria. With small deployments in these countries, the U.S. could face a choice between maintaining exposed forces abroad, withdrawing entirely, or deploying more troops. Having first withdrawn troops from Syria, another precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a significant strategic victory for Iran — despite the Iraqi parliament’s pronouncements urging withdrawal.
Iran also has several options that fall short of Trump’s only clear red line not to kill Americans. These include further attacks on oil interests or American partners, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel. So far, the administration has refused to use military force when Iran has targeted U.S. interests but avoided American casualties. With Iran likely to continue its asymmetric warfare, the U.S. should ensure it responds with calibrated force.
For example, gray zone operations such as cyber attacks, sabotage and interdicting weapons transfers, can be effective ways to compel changes in Iran’s conduct. These operations minimize the risks of escalation through deniable uses of force that fall below the level of conventional warfare, while still communicating clearly to Tehran that the U.S. has credible military options. Targeted strikes and other military actions do not need to be public for the ayatollahs to get the message. The U.S. should take a page from Israel’s playbook for military action in Syria and maintain plausible deniability when possible.
Political warfare that targets Iran’s domestic vulnerabilities, and the fact that the protests in Iraq and Lebanon are primarily anti-Iranian, is another option to pressure the Iranian leadership. This messaging could ramp up coercive pressure, given how much the Iranian regime fears internal subversion.
Iran’s rocket attacks may be the extent of their response to Soleimani’s death. More likely, however, the U.S. needs to prepare a more sustained counterpressure strategy against Iran.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask, former vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, serves on the Hybrid Warfare Task Force at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), where Ari Cicurel is a policy analyst.