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.
Trump’s goal is not to start a war. His administration has three objectives:
- First, restore deterrence and contain Iran’s expansionism across the Middle East.
- Second, roll back Iran’s gains and force it back within its borders.
- And third, give Iran’s leaders a clear choice: They can come to the negotiating table, give up their nuclear and missile ambitions, and act like a normal country — or their regime can implode, just like the Soviet Union.
When Trump came into office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East —
- in Syria,
- Iraq and
— thanks to the Obama administration’s failure to confront Iranian aggression and the massive infusions of cash it received from sanctions relief under President Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Trump withdrew from the deal, but he did not simply restore sanctions imposed before it; he ramped them up to unprecedented levels. The sanctions have already “wiped $10 billion from Iranian revenue since November,” The Post reported, citing administration officials.
This month, the administration tightened the screws even further, eliminating waivers for eight countries that had previously been allowed to continue importing Iranian oil. The goal, according to American officials, is to reduce Iranian oil exports to “zero.” It’s working. Bloomberg News reports that “Iran’s oil shipments tumbled this month after the U.S. ended sanctions waivers. . . . So far, not a single ship has been seen leaving Iran’s oil terminals for foreign ports.”
The new sanctions are forcing Tehran to cut funds to its terrorist proxies. According to The Post, “Iran’s ability to finance allies such as Hezbollah has been curtailed,” while in Lebanon, the New York Times reports, “Syrian militiamen paid by Iran have seen their salaries slashed” because, to quote one fighter, “Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.” On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that “Iran’s proposed defense budget has been reduced by 25 percent and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’] proposed budget by about 10 percent.”
Iran is obviously unhappy with this, and U.S. intelligence saw signs that Iran was preparing to respond with attacks on Americans using terrorist proxies — just as they did in the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and by supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with armor-penetrating roadside bombs that killed hundreds of American soldiers.
So the Trump administration delivered a clear message that America will hold Iran directly responsible for any attacks on Americans, even if they are carried out by surrogates — and offered a show of force to back those threats. Far from making war more likely, this kind of clarity makes it less likely that Iranian leaders will miscalculate — because they know the consequences.
Sanctions are inflicting major pain. But if the goal is not only to contain but also to roll back Iran’s expansionism, then sanctions alone are not enough. We must also aggressively confront Iran throughout the region, building up our allies and bleeding the Iranians wherever we can — inflicting defeats on them in critical theaters such as Syria and Iraq, just as President Ronald Reagan did to the Soviets during the Cold War.
A major drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria is incompatible with a “maximum pressure” approach.
Will Iranian leaders come to the table? Far less draconian sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table under Obama. But Trump has rightly paired tougher sanctions with tougher demands. Pompeo has laid out 12 requirements for a deal with Iran — including an end to support for Middle East terrorist groups and a complete withdrawal from Syria — that Iran is unlikely to meet.
If they don’t come to the table, then what is our strategy? Does Trump really want to bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime? It’s not clear. If he does, then, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Frederick W. Kagan points out, this task may be even harder than it was with the Soviet Union. As North Korea has shown, tyrannical regimes can survive even crippling sanctions. Certainly, the world will be better if Iran is focused on survival rather than expansion and terror. But it will take more than sanctions to leave the Iranian regime on the ash heap of history. That requires a strategy.