The US and Iran must know their end game – Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

International, Issue

The killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani by the United States is an unprecedented step by any measure. This has “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” as the former US Vice President Joe Biden said. The chance of another deadly Middle East war is more likely than ever. General Qassim Suleimani was the commander the Quds Force, a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for Iran’s intelligence activities and extraterritorial operations. Over the last four decades, General Suleimani has earned reputations as one of the greatest military strategists of our time, a strategic genius, and a mastermind who created Iran’s pathway to project power well beyond its border. His enemies feared him, but also respected his maneuvering capabilities. The General was a sworn and deadly enemy of the US and its allies for decades. He was well revered by many across and beyond the region. The “legendary” General was killed on 03 January 2020—not by a terrorist attack, but by an order of the head of the US government, who boasted for taking out one of the US’s deadly enemies. What does this mean to what happens next? How can things spiral out of control and what are the costs? How to really deescalate the situation? I have examined various assumptions around these questions.

Escalation and its cost

The Iranian leaders have threatened to take “harsh revenge” for the General Suleimani’s killing. Iran considers the US action as a significant escalation while the US officials claim they killed the General to “deescalate” or to “stop the war”. These are narratives and counter-narratives, but almost all analysts agree that this is a significant incident and some sort of retaliation is simply a matter of time. Is this going to be a cycle of escalation and counter-escalation leading to a full-blown conflict? No one really knows.
For the US, in the event of an Iranian “harsh revenge”, the USA can escalate further by launching a direct attack on Iran—which may end up in a full-scale war. Given the destructive capability of the US military, the conventional Iranian resistance stands little chance. However, that’s where General Suleimani’s doctrine came in. Over the last four decades, General Suleimani had invested his time and resource to develop and nurture a formidable asymmetric warfare capabilities to confront exactly what the situation they are facing today. This is how the Iranians have seemingly distributed their risks across the Middle East. In the face of an all-out war, while the US military will be able to decimate Iranian home front, they are likely to face indirect hostilities and attacks on their bases, military and economic assets and installations spread across the region—in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, and to some extent in Pakistan.
In a conventional war game, Iran is no match against the mighty US military machine. However, the US has been proven vulnerable to unconventional guerrilla warfare time and again–from Vietnam to recent case of Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Iranian game plan particularly rests on the latter strategy, the consequence will likely be a protracted war, which could possibly be bloodier than Vietnam war, and costlier than Iraq war. In such a scenario, Americans may soon find them in another decade-long exhaustive war. When they would be able to control the flame, they stand losing too much along the way. Such war of attrition may eventually force the Americans to withdraw from the West Asia and North Africa region. The war may bleed trillions of taxpayers’ dollars, perhaps double the cost of Iraq war (which was $2 trillion). After Iraq war debacle, another such expensive but unproductive venture may significantly hurt the US economy, putting enormous strain on the economy, pushing for budgetary adjustments that may eventually lead to cutting down huge US military budget. All these would mean far less money for the military overhead for more than 800 military bases stretched around the world thus drawing down the presence. Reducing military footprint around the world may follow the waning of global power. The scenario may end up like the “victories” of World War II (WWII) when the Britain and France, together with US and allies, won the war against Germans and the Axis power but lost their colonial projects in Asia and Africa. A devastating, protracted regional war with Iran and its proxies could be such a defining moment for the US and the world history after WWII.
Iran, on the other hand, is in a difficult position. They lost their most decorated military general and high ranking government officials. This is an irreplaceable loss for their military adventurism. They understand that a head-on collusion with the United States would lead to everything the Iranian regime stands for now. However, they face a dilemma: if they do not retaliate to the killing, they will lose their face and credibility in the region. In the worst case scenario, this may well be the beginning of their end as a regional power. However, the problem is, if Iran chooses to respond even ‘proportionately’, as their foreign minister said, there is a serious risk of miscalculation. If their response is outsized, like killing dozens or American servicemen or drowning of a warship, or directly attacking a US base leading scores of deaths, that would immediately lead to a full scale war.

What could be a measured response that both the US and Iran can walk away with?

Given Iran’s weaker military position, there are several non-military areas where Iran may likely to escalate without necessarily drawing immediate US response. may These responses may include: (1) they may work closely with Iraqi authorities to contain the operations of US forces in Iraq and/or force them out of the country, legally. This would deal a significant blow to the Americans (given their loss of immense blood and treasure for Iraq) while would be a big strategic win for the Iran; (2) Iranians may opt to pull out of nuclear deal (known as JCPOA) or may substantially draw down its commitments. At worst, they may decide to pull out of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and stop any cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the existing framework of engagement—this is again would be tectonic move that can jostle the entire region without any exchange of firepower; (3) the Iranians can also choose to continue, or may be escalate their war of attrition via proxies maintaining plausible deniability; (4) they may also move closer to Russia and China to form a more formal military alliance; and finally (5) Iran may accelerate the works on “strategic” weapons as a mean of deterrence. There is already a talk within the Iranian security establishment to start Shahav-IV missile project. Therefore, even without resorting to a direct military confrontation, the Iranians retain the ability to carry out a range of retaliatory actions, which in the long run, may create new strategic realities for all parties concerned.
The United States, on the other hand, has scored big for the short term by killing the second most important government and military figure of Iran. Their entire focus is now to contain the spillover from that hallmark “assassination”, as some analysts argued. The US responses to the crisis is therefore contingent upon the scale and intensity of Iranian retaliation. Instead of playing the dangerous retaliation-counter-retaliation game, can the US take some proactive measures to deescalate the situation? I argue that they can in fact do that. At least two options are worth considering. The US de-escalatory measures may involve: (1) offering Iranians immediate sanction-relief—this can dissuade Iranians not to cross certain threshold of retaliation; and (2) in the event of an ‘outsized’ Iranian retaliation, the US is best served to a limited, symbolic response thus put an end to this cycle of escalation. Ultimately, by killing General Suleimani, the US has irreparably damaged the Iranian capacity in the region, and has made a clear statement. They also have drawn the red line very clear and loud. A measured or muted response to any Iranian retaliation would not be unwise for the US’s perspective.
I am sure US officials appreciate the gravity of the situation. For the most part of 20th Century, the United States has been a formidable and almost an unchallenged military prowess in the world. However, history suggests that most monumental mistakes are made out of sheer arrogance. The reality is the US is overstretched militarily around the world at the moment. The recorded history of rise and fall of great civilizations suggest that one of the most significant causes of their decline was their military overreach. The US military expansion has arguably reached a tipping point. They have more than 800 military bases around the world with an estimated military spending of nearly $700 billion dollar (in 2019, it was $686 billion). The US has involved in many costly wars in the last few decades and some are more unnecessary than others. According to some estimate, the post-9/11 anti-terror wars cost the US about $6 trillion dollars, which has already put a great strain on the US economy. With $22 trillion dollar debt of $19 trillion dollar economy, which is 105% of the GDP, can the US sustain another $4 or $5 trillion dollar war?
Given the gradual paradigmatic shift of global political, economic, and military power from the West to the East, mainly centering on China, the US would be best advised to reserve its resources to manage other strategic priorities. A war with Iran can definitely serve the ego of some American leaders or can entertain interests of vested quarters in Washington or its military-industrial complex, but it will barely serve any purpose of common American men and women.