The Islamic Republic is too weak to wage a conventional war on the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean it poses no threat.
How might Iran respond to the death of Qasem Soleimani? Ever since the Trump administration’s January 3 killing of Soleimani, the Islamic Republic’s top military commander, that question has been on the mind of policymakers in Washington and the American public at large.
Iran’s January 8 rocket attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq clearly constituted part of its response, but Iranian leaders quickly made clear that more retaliation is forthcoming. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself has said that, while the rocket attack was a “slap” at the United States, it was “not enough,” and the Islamic Republic will continue its opposition to the United States with the ultimate goal of driving America out of the Middle East altogether.
Doing so, however, is likely to prove difficult for Iran. As a recent analysis by CNBC notes, sanctions leveled by the Trump administration over the past two years have inflicted extensive damage on the Iranian economy. The country’s GDP shrunk by nearly 10 percent last year, and its exports of crude oil declined from a peak of 2.5 million barrels per day to less than 500,000 daily.
Domestic conditions, meanwhile, are deteriorating. Inflation is on the rise within the Islamic Republic and is now pegged at over 30 percent. So, too, is joblessness; nearly a fifth of the country’s workforce is currently estimated to be unemployed. Meanwhile, governmental expenditures have surged as Iran’s ayatollahs struggle to keep a lid on an increasingly impoverished, and discontented, population.
All of this, according to CNBC’s analysis, profoundly limits Iran’s ability “to fund a war” against the United States. But that doesn’t mean the threat from Iran is nonexistent. Iran still has the ability to “ramp up its aggression against the U.S.” through the use of its network of proxy forces in the region.
That network is extensive — and lethal. It comprises not only Iran’s traditional terrorist proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement, but also assorted Shiite militias in Iraq (the so-called “Hashd al-Shaabi”) and even Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Recently, it has also made use of the “Shi’a Liberation Army” (SLA), a group of as many as 200,000 Shiite fighters — drawn from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere — that has been trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and deployed to foreign theaters such as Syria.
Notably, these forces appear to have been thrown into chaos, at least temporarily, by the killing of Soleimani. Reports from the region suggest that Iraqi militias are “in a state of disarray” after the death of the Iranian general, and aren’t currently ready to strike U.S. or allied targets. Over time, however, we can expect Tehran to regain control and direction of its troops and weaponize them anew against the United States and regional U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. That is doubtless the top priority of Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, who has already commenced outreach to Iranian proxies in an effort to reinforce Tehran’s support for “resistance” activities.
Tehran likewise has another potent tool by which to target the United States: cyber warfare. Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has made enormous investments in its cyber-war capabilities and carried out a series of demonstration attacks on targets such as Saudi Arabia’s state oil company and various U.S. financial institutions to showcase its newfound technological prowess. In the wake of President Trump’s pullout from President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal, Iran reshaped its cyber-activism against the United States, focusing less on offensive attacks and more on gathering information about potential policy from the notoriously opaque new administration in Washington.
But Tehran’s potential to do significant harm to the U.S. in cyberspace remains. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned publicly that Iran could carry out a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure in the near future, with potentially significant “disruptive effects.” And so far, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has articulated much by way of a strategy to deter Iran from carrying out such attacks, or to mitigate the damage they could do. (In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, that lack of strategy has become a matter of growing concern on Capitol Hill.)
Perhaps the most compelling reason to expect an asymmetric Iranian response to Soleimani’s killing, however, is that asymmetric warfare plays to Iran’s inherent strengths. Ever since the regime’s grinding eight-year war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s — a conflict that Iran lost handily — its leaders have exhibited a strong penchant for military asymmetry over direct confrontation. This preference has only been reinforced by persistent Western sanctions, which have eroded the country’s conventional military capabilities and made the acquisition of spare parts and matériel considerably more difficult.
Soleimani was the regime’s principal architect of asymmetric war, and had devoted nearly a quarter-century to building up the Islamic Republic’s asymmetric potency. That is precisely why his targeted killing by the Trump administration represents such a significant blow to the integrity of Iran’s proxy network — and to the prudence of its time-tested asymmetric strategy. Going forward, Tehran may well have to rethink its approach, and could conclude that the potential costs of continuing its campaign of aggression against U.S. forces in the region are now simply too high. If it doesn’t, however, the very capabilities that Soleimani spent his career cultivating will remain the most potent weapons the Islamic Republic has to wield against the United States.
He was an important figure. But the Islamic Republic won’t lose influence in the region.
The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran by the United States was an unprecedented escalation in the 40-year standoff between the two countries. General Suleimani was the powerful head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special operations forces, the Quds Force, and we can expect retaliation across the region. But the killing will not in itself weaken the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s role in the region.
The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, belies a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard.
Consider how similar assassinations have played out. The 2008 assassination of a top Hezbollah leader, Imad Mugniyah, did not weaken the group — in fact, the reverse happened. Likewise, years of targeted assassinations against Hamas in Gaza haven’t dismantled that organization. The Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic Republic are bigger and more powerful than either of those groups.
To understand the structure of the Revolutionary Guards, it is important to understand the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). It was on the battlefields of this conflict, the 20th century’s longest conventional war, that the guards formed their battle-hardened culture and leadership ethos. Faced with an Iraqi military that was heavily supplied by the United States and the West, the guards learned how to fight asymmetrically, a strategy that it has since perfected. That means, above all, devolving decision-making to small, often ad hoc groups, operating semi-independently against much larger forces.
In my 10 years of research in Iran with the Revolutionary Guards, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.
This contrasts with General Suleimani’s public image, both at home and abroad, which, since 2013, has been propped up by a vast media campaign. I followed some of his media team during my research and saw how they produced films, documentaries and even music videos, in both Persian and Arabic, lionizing his feats against the Islamic State. Inside Iran, he consistently polled among the most popular figures in the regime. The fact that most of his activities took place outside Iran helped preserve his reputation in the often fractious politics of the Islamic Republic.
It is likewise hard to overstate the symbolic power of General Suleimani in the region, particularly among Arab Shiite groups in Iraq and Lebanon. He was the face of Iranian power from Lebanon to Yemen, a face that brought money, weapons and advisers. Yet he wasn’t the only person in the Revolutionary Guards who built such personal relationships, as the Western news media tends to depict. Far from it.
Thanks to the guards’ ad hoc structure, the relationship between the Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite armed groups is a long and deep one. During my time in Lebanon and Iran, I met foreign militants who spent long stretches in Iran, for both work and pleasure. They spoke fluent Persian and fully understood the Revolutionary Guards ethos. The ties that bind many of these groups together include generations of marriage, commerce, history and culture. General Suleimani, as important as he was, was not singular.
Iran and its populations have thousands of years of history in the region. That doesn’t get “rooted out” with assassinations and missile strikes. These relationships — among Revolutionary Guards cadres and between the guards and their allies abroad — are deep, and they do not rely on one figure. In fact, Iran has already named General Suleimani’s longtime deputy, Ismail Qaani, as his successor.
Given the intense political infighting inside Iran following the heavy-handed crackdown of the state on protesters in November, the assassination of General Suleimani is a convenient opportunity to unify the country. The Islamic Republic knows how to create consensus in the face of an external enemy: It did so during the Iran-Iraq war, in the fight against the Islamic State and against American sanctions.
In this way, General Suleimani’s influence will survive him; in fact, it may have suddenly grown significantly. The United States just killed a very popular figure within powerful armed circles across the region. And he was not the only leader with strategic and battle experience who wished to see the United States leave the region. This was a highly symbolic assassination. The problem for the United States is that symbolism has the power to move people to action.
On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.
To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.
When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?
I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.
And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.
When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?
Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.
But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.
So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.
Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”
There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.
Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.
Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.
And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.”
I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?
So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.
And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.
That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.
Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.
Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.
The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.
I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.
I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?
What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?
I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.
One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?
There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.
Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.
There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.
Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.
Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.
Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”
I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.
Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?
More than words are at work. Last week the Bank of England blocked Mr. Maduro from withdrawing $1.2 billion in gold reserves. On Friday the U.S. gave Mr. Guaidó control of Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks... Venezuelans have made numerous attempts since 2002 to restore the liberties lost when Chávez used his majority backing to dissolve civil rights and a free press. But they were never able to persuade the military high command, infiltrated by Cuba, to break ranks with the dictator. If this time is different it’s because Mr. Maduro can no longer guarantee the interests of the top brass.
Mr. Guaidó is rumored to be backed by Venezuela’s military rank-and-file and midlevel officers. There are also reports that some commanders of detachments around the country no longer support Mr. Maduro.
The regime is unleashing repression and the international community wants to avoid more bloodshed. The U.S. has offered the military high command safe passage out of the country, and if international efforts to cut financial channels for the leadership are successful, many may find it an attractive option.
.. On Jan. 10 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia FreelandwarnedMr. Maduro that he would not be recognized: “We call on him to immediately cede power to the democratically-elected National Assembly until new elections are held, which must include the participation of all political actors and follow the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.”
.. Mr. Maduro says this is a U.S. conspiracy. But as a member of Canada’s Liberal Party and the lead negotiator of the bitter rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ms. Freeland is hardly a Trump administration lackey.
The tyrant isn’t entirely alone. Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Hezbollah stand with him. Havana runs the counterintelligence network charged with controlling the Venezuelan armed forces and brownshirts. Reuters reported Friday that Russia has flown an unspecified number of paramilitary contractors into the country. A new asymmetric war can’t be ruled out.