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What it cost to kill Soleimani

What it cost to kill Soleimani

For those who hoped 2020 would offer an opportunity to set a gentler course in U.S. foreign policy, it took just three days for President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE to shatter those aspirations. The targeted killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassim Soleimani on January 3 injected global panic into the New Year, with actors on all sides scrambling to avert the prospect of a full-scale war.

Thankfully, more than a month on from the killing, the dust surrounding the affair has begun to settle, for now, allowing space for a sober assessment of the price the U.S. has paid for killing Soleimani that avoids the doomsday predictions or foolish chauvinism of those early days.  

To the Trump administration’s credit, its assessment that Iran would elect a more muted response to the assassination of its most senior military commander proved accurate. Iranians are masters of escalation control. Once the rising tensions between Tehran and Washington accelerated from clandestine operations to conventional warfare, Iran lost its strategic advantage. Simply put, Iran understood that, with the shield of plausible deniability removed, their vulnerabilities to conventional attack were too great. Working through Swiss channels, Tehran communicated clearly that its limited missile strike on a U.S. military base in Iraq would be the end of its rejoinder.

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But avoiding WWIII is a dismally low bar to pass, and the fact that the killing didn’t spark a wider conflict is a poor measure of the wisdom of the operation. Such generous appraisals fail to take into account the rippling consequences the strike has had on local developments that are undermining strategic advantages the U.S. once enjoyed, damaging the American position in the region and torpedoing what had been a series of promising steps towards deescalation.

In Iraq, where the strike took place, the stunning violation of the country’s sovereignty has brought U.S. relations with Baghdad to the breaking point. In the days following the killing, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel American troops from Iraqi soil, a core objective of Commander Soleimani before his death. With reports that ISIS is reconstituting its proto-state, the departure of U.S. troops and any associated decline in their coordinating role in the counter-ISIS campaign would be a significant coup for the terror organization and a tremendous loss for U.S. security.

Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s have taken to the streets to call for an end to the American deployment. The irony, of course, is that the ire of Iraqi protesters had previously been squarely focused on state capture, corruption and, by natural extension, Iranian manipulation of Iraqi politics. In effect, the strike managed to divert public attention away from Iran’s efforts to co-opt the Iraqi state for its own gains and onto the United States’ apparently dangerous presence in the country.

In fact, the killing effectively pilfered an important moment for a wave of protest movements across the region, including in Iraq and Lebanon, that had the second order consequence of undermining Iran’s efforts to subvert the politics of those countries. Calls for an end to corruption, for the curtailing of vast patronage networks and for more transparent governance threatened the very structures Tehran depends on for its clandestine activities. Though those grievances remain, and protesters have continued to take to the streets, the assassination sapped energy and attention from key stakeholders who were either engaged with or the target of these efforts.

Similarly, the strike managed to dull weeks of anti-government protests in Iran, where marchers instead took to the streets to mourn the loss of Commander Soleimani. Though the respite from demonstrations the Iranian government enjoyed was short-lived, the utility in being able to point to the distant enemy of the United States has endured, allowing the regime in Tehran to divert attention away from its own failings.

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Regional efforts to reduce tensions between the Gulf and Iran also took a significant hit. In Yemen, one of the primary theaters for the region’s proxy conflict, backdoor peace efforts that had made humble but promising progress in recent weeks have screeched to a halt, as the appetite for de-escalation that had driven Iran and Saudi Arabia to press their clients to pursue peace has all but evaporated.  

Likewise, hopes that indirect talks between Riyadh and Tehran could reduce tensions and improve the security situation in the region have been effectively extinguished. For now, Tehran is likely to be searching for a means to re-establish deterrence and to project strength in the face of the most high-profile assassination in the country’s history. Such an outlook bodes poorly for regional peace efforts.

All told, Soleimani’s death did not come cheaply. From Beirut to Baghdad, the price has been paid in long-term efforts by the U.S. to reduce the Iranian footprint in the region, diffuse the risk of conflict, end the war in Yemen, and support good governance as an antidote to corruption and insecurity. In return, the U.S. has little to show. Though the Iranians did not respond in kind to such a flagrant act of aggression, it does not mean they’ve elected to cede the battlefield. Allowing the conflict to return from a rolling boil to a low simmer speaks to Iran’s strategic edge in proxy operations that allows it to obscure its direct involvement.

With the benefit of patience, Iran is likely to resume the operational tempo it had maintained in the months leading up to the assassination. The immediate tactical benefits of Soleimani’s death, therefore, will be short-lived. The costs, however, will endure.

Elias Yousif is a program and research associate with the Security Assistance Monitor Program at the Center for International Policy, where he analyzes the impact of U.S. arms transfer programs on international security and human rights.