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.
The president can’t assume that Americans will accept what he says as true.
More so than any other president in the modern era, Donald Trump has made his administration a one-man spectacle. He hires and fires officials on impulse, demonstrating at every turn that the people under him are disposable and he’s the only figure who counts. Should the conflict with Iran escalate into a hot war, Trump will be the one who needs to sell Americans on the idea that it is necessary and prepare them for the sacrifice and bloodshed the nation must endure.
Yet by virtue of his own repeated misstatements and distortions, Trump arrives at this perilous moment at a decided disadvantage: He can’t assume people will accept what he says as true, because millions have concluded it never is.
Trump faces the gravest foreign-policy crisis of his tenure at a time when his credibility has been shredded. It’s not yet known how Iran will respond to the killing yesterday of its military leader Qassem Soleimani, but the country is already vowing “harsh” revenge. A conflict that has been escalating steadily on Trump’s watch is at risk of erupting into an armed confrontation. In times of war, commanders in chief need people’s trust, but for large swaths of the population, Trump hasn’t earned it. As Samantha Power, who was the ambassador to the United Nations under former President Barack Obama, tweeted this morning: “This is where having credibility—and having a president who didn’t lie about everything—would be really, really helpful.”
Independent fact-checkers have painstakingly documented Trump’s untruths. The Washington Post keeps a running tally and reports that Trump’s false and misleading claims are coming with growing frequency, now topping 15,000 since the start of his presidency. While Americans celebrated the holidays, their president used his Twitter account to share misstatements both petty and serious. In an act of spite, he suggested,
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had cut his seven-second cameo from a Canadian broadcast of the movie Home Alone 2. Trump tweeted that
- he was the one who passed a program giving veterans the option of seeing a private doctor. And he said
- the Obama administration had made him the target of a “coup.” Each of those claims is false.
Now Trump is using that same Twitter feed, launchpad of so many baseless attacks and conspiracy theories, to convince his countrymen that he was right to target Soleimani in a drone strike and that he acted preemptively to deter Iranian aggression.
Compounding his credibility problem is a desiccated national-security team. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, might be leaving soon to campaign for a Senate seat in Kansas. His longtime defense secretary, James Mattis, resigned last year and was replaced only this summer. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has been in place just a few months—the fourth person to hold the title in three years.
Trump has demeaned and discarded multiple officials and cast doubt on their intelligence findings. During the House impeachment proceedings, Trump sought to discredit longtime foreign-policy experts working for his administration who testified that he had attempted to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden. Though he’s now touting intelligence that Iran was poised to launch more attacks on U.S. interests, the president might have undermined his own case by repeatedly questioning the intelligence community’s competence. In a memorable press conference during his 2018 summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump accepted his claim that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections, repudiating what his own agencies had unanimously found.
Trump’s first public response to the strike suggests that he will try to summon patriotic feeling to rally Americans to his side. After the news broke, he tweeted a picture of an American flag. This afternoon, he gave a brief televised statement at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida. His tone was in some ways conciliatory: He said he does not want “regime change” in Iran. But he also warned Iranian leaders that he is prepared to retaliate against future aggression. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take action to start a war.” Trump left the room without taking questions from reporters.
Typically, when the U.S. is threatened—as the Trump administration says it was with an “imminent” Soleimani-planned attack—voters have tended to stand behind the president. George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped about 40 points, reaching 90 percent, in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to Gallup. (The good feeling didn’t last: As Bush’s Iraq War soured, so did his approval rating, though he won a second term.) His father, George H. W. Bush, enjoyed 74 percent approval in 1990 after he sent troops to the Middle East following the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. (Two years later, Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.)
Trump, though, is a unique case. His approval rating has never cracked 50 percent in Gallup surveys, and experts on the presidency have rated him the most polarizing chief executive in history. Trump’s handling of the crisis will test the reflexive loyalty Americans show in such fraught times. It’s not at all clear that, outside of Trump’s base, people will trust his motivations, especially when he’s under serious political pressure. He is up for reelection in November, and he’s facing a potential impeachment trial in the Senate. Tweets he sent out years ago show that he’s well aware a president’s popularity spikes in wartime: In 2011, a year before Obama won reelection, Trump claimed, “In order to get elected, Obama will start a war with Iran.”
Trump’s critics suspect that he’s inflaming tensions with Iran to suit his own needs, deliberate preparation be damned. They see a “wag the dog” scenario—the term for presidents who manufacture overseas crises to divert attention from embarrassments at home.
Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, tweeted, “So what if Trump wants war, knows this leads to war and needs the distraction?” She went on to say, as other Democrats have, that Congress should intervene and stop him from escalating the situation any further. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan and a former CIA analyst who served in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, said in a statement that the U.S. has long considered what to do about Soleimani-led attacks on its forces. Both administrations concluded that a strike against him wasn’t worth the risk of retaliatory action pulling the U.S. into a “protracted conflict,” Slotkin said.
Americans woke today to a foreign-policy landscape that seemed forever changed, more ominous than at any point in Trump’s presidency. Scenarios for what comes next seemed grim: an Iranian counterattack on a U.S. embassy somewhere in the Middle East? Then possibly a U.S. reprisal, followed by another Iranian assault—a steady ratcheting toward a shooting war? But the country didn’t get much reassurance or a clear-eyed message about what had just happened and what to expect. Among his tweets recounting the praise he’s gotten for killing Soleimani, Trump revealed he’s still stuck on impeachment and his own political survival. He posted a video of Representative Russ Fulcher, a Republican from Idaho, delivering a speech on the House floor in his defense, in which the congressman said he would tick off Trump’s crimes and misdemeanors. Then Fulcher stayed silent.
That sight gag, in between messages of support for the killing, is what the 45th president wanted his countrymen to see as they anxiously watched the news and wondered whether war was looming.
The disparity between the defense secretary and President Trump added another twist to an ever-evolving explanation for a strike on an Iranian general that led to the brink of war.
They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.
For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.
On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future.The Trump Administration’s Fluctuating Explanations for the Suleimani Strike
While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.
But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who were both appointed by Mr. Trump but are career officials without a political history — have said privately and forcefully that the intelligence was compelling and that they were convinced a major attack was coming.
The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.
“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons — and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute — the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior F.B.I. official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”
Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack. Instead, C.I.A. officers described a “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases.
Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.
“I have not seen the intelligence, just to be clear, but it is sometimes possible for the reporting of planned attacks to be very compelling even without specificity of time, target or method,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting C.I.A. director. “In a sense, that is the story of 9/11. Our reporting gave us high confidence that a big attack was coming — and we so warned — but we were unable to nail down key details.”
Mr. McLaughlin said that the administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.
John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer for the National Security Council and later the State Department under Mr. Bush, said the president would have legal authority to strike under the Constitution whether or not there was fear of an imminent attack.
But under the United Nations Charter, the United States cannot use force in another country without its consent or the authority of the Security Council except in response to an armed attack or a threat of an imminent armed attack. “So under international law, the attack on Suleimani would not have been lawful unless he presented an imminent threat,” Mr. Bellinger said.
Claims that an imminent attack could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.
The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.
On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.
The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.
That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.
“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
“But,” he added, “we had very strong intelligence.”
Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN that he worried about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”
“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.
On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top aides of “fudging” the intelligence.
“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said. Officials briefing the so-called Gang of Eight top congressional leaders never said that four embassies were targeted, he added. “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”