Soleimani’s death takes America’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to next level
Iran has many options for retaliating against the United States and its interests for the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani.
The IRGC Navy could harass or attack ships in the Arabian Gulf or even attempt to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passageway through which much of the world’s energy resources flow. Tehran could launch salvos at US forces, bases or allies in the region. This could include attacks against Israel or energy infrastructure in the Gulf.
Perhaps most concerning, however, are the terror and proxy networks that Soleimani himself oversaw. Iran could activate these networks to retaliate directly against US forces in Iraq or to conduct terror attacks in the region and around the world.
Many worry that a bloody response from Iran could lead to a major escalation and possibly even full-scale war in the Middle East. These analysts overlook, however, the difficult situation in which Iran finds itself.
In contemplating his next move, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei faces a sharp dilemma: Soleimani was a national hero and the lack of any visible retaliation would make Khamenei look weak. He also knows, however, that going too far could lead to a major war with the United States, the world’s greatest superpower, and could even result in the end of his regime.
Khamenei is almost certainly attempting to formulate a goldilocks response. He needs to strike back, but not too hard.
The United States is playing on these fears. President Donald Trump warned Tehran on Sunday morning that if Iran engaged in significant retaliation against the United States or its allies, the United States already had prepared a list of 52 Iranian targets that were important to Iran. Washington could go after Iranian proxy networks in Iraq and Syria. It could threaten to degrade the Iranian navy (as Ronald Reagan did in 1988). It could even hold at risk high value targets inside Iran, including its nuclear facilities, oil terminals and ballistic missile program.
In short, Trump has reminded Tehran that a major escalation of this conflict would turn out much worse for Iran than for the United States.
Moreover, Saturday’s announcement that the United States will send additional troops to the region was likely intended in no small part to bolster such a deterrence message.
This episode can contribute to America’s broader “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. To this point, the campaign has relied almost entirely on financial warfare against Iran’s economy through the levying of tough international sanctions. These sanctions have hurt Iran's economy, but the campaign has not effectively utilized all tools of national power.
Thursday’s action makes clear that, as part of America's broader Iran strategy, military options are back on the table.