Tensions in the Middle East have risen rapidly with the news that the U.S. killed Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was one of the highest ranking figures in Iran, commanding a combination of fear, respect, and admiration.
The circumstances around Soleimani’s death are raising a great deal of speculation about the potential consequences it may have on regional stability. But to chart a policy path forward, it is helpful to lay out the facts.
Here is what we know so far:
Facts about the Attack
- General Soleimani was killed by U.S. drone strike on January 3rd while leaving Baghdad Airport in a vehicle.
- Soleimani made his career in opposition to the United States and was responsible for actions that killed hundreds of American soldiers. He was responsible for a great deal of brutality in the Syrian Civil War. He was also leading Iranian intervention against ISIS militants.
- The days before the killing featured violent protests aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, staged in response to U.S. military air strikes against Iranian-supported militias in Iraq.
- The last 18 months have seen a steadily ratcheting up of actions between the U.S. and Iran, since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
- President Trump and several members of the administration have stated that Soleimani represented an “imminent” threat, but the Pentagon’s initial statements did not use this term. While Soleimani had long displayed a threat to Americans, no evidence of an “imminent” threat has yet been presented to the public.
- There is ongoing debate about the “legality” of the killing, as Soleimani was a foreign government official and the U.S. is not engaged in a declared war against Iran. However, the U.S. had also previously declared the Quds force, which Soleimani commanded, a terrorist organization.
Action Since the Attack
- On January 3, the State Department called on U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.
- The Iraqi parliament has called for S. forces to leave Iraq. On January 6, the U.S. military mistakenly sent a draft notification to the Iraqi government it was repositioning to prepare for a possible withdrawal. According to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the U.S. currently has no such plans.
- Huge funeral processions numbering more than 1 million people total appeared across Iran. This presents a stark contrast to a recent period of mass protests against the Iranian government and the subsequent brutal response to those protests.
- On January 5, Iran announced it ended its commitments to the nuclear limits imposed by the Iran Deal (JCPOA).
- On January 7, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has stated that Iran will “respond proportionately.”
- On January 7 (U.S. time), Iran launched short-range ballistic missiles against bases in Iraq hosting U.S. forces. There is no indication of casualties. Zarif indicated that Iran had concluded its “proportionate measures” in response to the U.S.
- The Iraqi government received early warning of the incoming attack from Iran, and notified the U.S. military. This, combined with the lack of casualties, has led some to believe that Iran intentionally “missed,” intending to send a message and save face more than escalate. However, Iranian missiles did hit several equipment-holding buildings precisely.
- On January 8, President Trump announced more sanctions on Iran, called for other signers of the JCPOA to leave the deal, and refrained from calling for further military action.
Assets on Hand in Case of Escalation
The United States maintains a variety of forces and military bases in the region which could be vulnerable to further Iranian action, or could be used to pursue further kinetic action against Iran. This includes land, air, and naval assets. Some land equipment is pre-staged in the region. Further outside of the region, long-range aircraft could be used to engage in further strikes. Reporting indicates several B-52s are being deployed to Diego Garcia, out of the range of Iran’s ballistic missile inventory. As heavy bombers like the B-52 or B-1 are not stealth capable, long-range stand-off munitions or stealth aircraft would need to be employed to destroy Iranian air defenses and allow for short-range gravity bombing. In August 2019, two U.S. B-2 stealth bombers deployed to the UK. A presence in Europe, as opposed to flying from Whiteman AFB in Missouri, could reduce the time needed to strike Iran by hours. The presence of stealth F-22s and F-35s at various Middle East bases also decreases U.S. response time for a penetrating strike into Iran.
However, it is important to note that actions taken from U.S. bases in Middle Eastern or European countries could cause significant tension with those allies, potentially drawing them into the conflict or limiting their future availability to American forces.
A potential war against Iran will be multi-domain. While Iran’s reach is regional as it does not have the force projection capabilities to effectively reach much further than the Middle East, it does have an array of options to pursue. A vast arsenal of missiles with albeit limited range gives Iran a significant ability to strike targets in the region. Iran’s only effective land-based force projection comes mostly in the form of militia groups that it influences around the Middle East, including Hezbollah. The Iranian military totals more than 870,000 active and reserve personnel. Its navy, while certainly inferior to the U.S., is capable of harassing vessels in the Persian Gulf and potentially mining the Strait of Hormuz. Cyber attacks on the U.S. would be likely.
In place for the majority of the Trump Administration, the U.S. strategy of “maximum pressure” against Iran leaves unclear how it will reach its goal of both ending Iran’s perceived nuclear ambitions and its malign influence in the region. While the killing of Soleimani took a threat out of the picture, there is no indication that the Iranian policies dictating the threat posed by Soleimani will disappear. What is clear is that both sides have a tremendous amount of firepower at their disposal, and a miscalculation can lead to a much bigger conflict than intended.