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Fears of 'What's next?' will influence Iran's — and the world's — reactions

The killing of Qassem Soleimani is surely a game-changer. He was the mastermind of Iran’s policies in the region, and perhaps the second most powerful figure in the Iranian hierarchy.

He developed and shaped Shia militias as tools of Iranian coercion, leverage and intimidation in the Middle East. He trained, financed, armed and helped guide their operations — and they, in turn, enabled Iran to extend its influence at minimal cost. His successes permitted Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to refer to Lebanon and Syria as part of Iran’s “forward defense.” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard leaders and parliamentarians spoke of Iranian dominance in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana, Yemen.

Only in recent months did we see that the imagery of Iranian successes began to wear thin. Soleimani could extend Iran’s control but not prevent a terrible backlash against the mismanagement, corruption and oppression of Iranian proxies — whether Hezbollah in Lebanon, or militias like Kutaib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq.

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Being over-extended had not yet begun to erode Soleimani’s position with Supreme Leader Khamenei. And it will matter little to Khamenei that Soleimani overplayed his hand and became too confident that he was untouchable. Instead, Khamenei will see that a core figure in the regime was assassinated by the Americans. There will be little soul-searching or lessons learned; instead, he will believe that Iran cannot allow such a direct attack on an Iranian leader to go unanswered. To do so would, in his eyes, threaten the regime itself.

So the Iranians will respond, guided by their own sense of when and where. Khamenei’s basic reluctance to get into direct shooting wars — a reluctance borne of his view of the monumental costs of the war with Iraq in the 1980s — will inform the options the Iranians adopt.

For starters, Khamenei will want — indeed, already is starting — to milk the potential domestic benefits of a nationalist reaction to the assassination of a figure the regime had done much to lionize for his defense of Iran against ISIS. After the brutal crushing of demonstrations and riots over the reduction of domestic gas subsidies, Khamenei certainly has an interest in trying to coalesce greater public support.

Building nationalist fury and resentment will, however, go only so far, and will, at the same time, feed the need to show that the regime is not allowing Soleimani’s death to go unanswered.

Khamenei is much too careful to be driven to authorize direct Iranian actions that provoke tough military responses, especially from the United States. He understands the real danger of a direct shooting war with America, and he will seek to avoid it. His instinct will be to act through proxies, to preserve deniability and to minimize real danger to the regime. His challenge will be to do enough to show that Iran is exacting a serious price for Soleimani’s killing without triggering a more direct war with the U.S. military on Iran itself.

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We should expect a wide spectrum of actions and attacks that could be spaced over the coming months, including:

  • Renewed public pressure from Shia militias to force the Iraqi government to ask all U.S. forces to leave the country;
  • Terror attacks on soft American targets, symbols or officials in the Middle East and internationally;
  • Proxy use of drones, cruise missiles or rockets to hit oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Part of the price the Iranians will seek to impose is a political one. They will want to sow uncertainty and instability in the region with the not-so-subtle implication that the killing of Soleimani unleashed all of this.

There also will be a desire to wreak revenge on President Donald Trump. Much as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was determined to make President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' French radio station mistakenly publishes obituaries of celebrities MORE pay for his responses to the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis and the failed Desert One rescue operation by not releasing the hostages until President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, Khamenei will look to embarrass President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE in the run-up to our presidential election. Will it be a timed terror attack here? Will it be increased proxy attacks against U.S. forces or bases, fostering the image that the U.S. is now involved in a new, more amorphous “endless” war? Will it be to hit enough oil facilities to ensure that oil prices shoot up?

The Trump administration hopes that Soleimani’s killing will serve as a deterrent. Given Iran’s need to prove the high costs of the killing, however, that will prove difficult. So what should the administration be doing?

It is right to send more forces to the area, both to signal Iran that we are prepared to exact a price if it acts against our presence and also to improve the security of potentially vulnerable infrastructure. Military deployments may be a necessary step, but they almost certainly will not be enough to protect all the sites needing protection. Moreover, there is a limit to the effect they can have on the Iranians.

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Active, smart diplomacy — hardly a hallmark of the Trump administration — must be part of what is done now. Trump, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Israeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperActing Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition MORE should be signaling their counterparts that we do not seek a conflict or escalation but will not tolerate attacks on our forces or partners and will respond. The aim would be to get not just the Europeans but also the Russians and Chinese to convey to the Iranians — especially Khamenei — that the risks are very high and they, too, will oppose direct or indirect Iranian actions that provoke a wider conflict in the region. Khamenei must see that Iran will end up isolating itself if it seeks to destabilize the area. Imposing a price on the U.S. is one thing; isolating itself politically is another for the Iranians.

True, no one is simply going to do American bidding with the Iranians at this point; they likely will ask for commitments in return — and here is the art of diplomacy, signaling that there is flexibility on our part if they can deliver Iranian quiescence and responsive moves in turn. We do have leverage because neither our allies nor the Russians and Chinese want the region to blow up. And, in Putin’s case, the last thing he wants is for U.S. power to again appear dominant in the region. Knowing that Trump wants out of the region and not to be sinking more forces into it, Putin may well be willing to play a brokering role with Iran.

It is precisely the fear of escalation that could provide a basis, first, to get everyone to take a step back and, second, to build on that to produce a phased approach to both the nuclear issue and the need for limits or meaningful red-line understandings on what the Iranians will and won’t do in the region.

Maybe this will be a bridge too far. But, ironically, it is the danger of the situation that creates a potential opening. The U.S. readiness to do more militarily while also signaling a readiness to compromise is what the Russians and/or others can use to apply collective pressure on Iran, even as they also offer a genuine relaxation of sanctions.

Clearly, everything starts with the Trump administration actively conveying a dual message: Don’t test us further, but we are willing to accept understandings. Is that what Trump was trying to say with his tweet: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation?”

Iran may not be willing to listen to us, but it will not ignore others. It is time for the “America First” president to work with others.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of "Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny." Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.