(January 21, 2020 / BESA Center)
In Israel and the West, particularly in the United States, the prevailing assessment of the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is that it created a vacuum of authority in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and in the Quds Force specifically.
According to this view, the spectacular killing unraveled the network of Shi’ite militias and militant pro-Iranian elements in the Middle East and severed the thread that links these forces. It is believed that much time and resources will be required to rehabilitate this network, especially in Iraq and Syria, and that Iran’s entrenchment in those countries will therefore be slowed substantially.
This optimistic assessment is also influenced by the widespread protests in Iran that were sparked by the tragic downing of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft by the Iranian air defense system.
In Washington, senior administration officials made haste to claim that Soleimani’s killing had restored U.S. deterrence against Iran. This was borne out, they claimed, by the restrained Iranian response, which took the form of the launching of a number of missiles at Iraqi bases that also host U.S. forces. This restrained response indicates, according to these officials, that Iran does not want an all-out military confrontation with America.
Furthermore, the fact that Tehran conveyed a prior warning via the Iraqi government was seen as reflecting Iran’s desire to make only a limited, demonstrative move that was not meant to cause American casualties, but only to maintain the regime’s prestige in the eyes of its subjects.
Non-nuclear deterrence is believed to be established and/or restored in a sequential fashion by power displays and demonstrative confrontations. In many cases, deterrence is more a matter of instilling an impression than creating a fact.
It is not in dispute that Soleimani’s killing was a blow to Iran’s regional influence. He was the mover and shaker, the glue that held the various Shi’ite militias together. He was in charge of maintaining and expanding Iran’s influence. It is doubtful, however, that his loss created an unfillable vacuum.
Soleimani was the symbol of the Quds Force. But the Force’s command structure, including its link with the IRGC leadership, creates reasonable conditions in which to maintain a hierarchical continuity, including an immediate transfer of authority that does not entail a significant disruption of the chain of command.
Tehran made clear to Washington through diplomatic channels that its attack on the Iraqi/American bases in Iraq would be its full military response to Soleimani’s killing, on the assumption that the Trump administration would show restraint in turn. Despite this placatory signal, it is doubtful that Washington can assume a shift in Iran’s policy in the Persian Gulf, especially as Tehran is not concealing its ongoing aim to bring about a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. As far as the Iranian leadership is concerned, all means remain on the table to achieve that objective.
Furthermore, Tehran takes heart from U.S. domestic affairs, particularly the Democratic Party’s initiative to restrict U.S. President Donald Trump’s military freedom of action regarding Iran. The Iranians see this as a trend that plays into their hands regarding their ability to pursue their nuclear program with impunity.
A sober consideration of Iran’s strategy in the Middle East indicates that the killing of Soleimani will not affect Tehran’s aggressive regional policy, whether implemented directly or through proxy organizations. If that is indeed the case, then the killing was but a minor blow.
As the Iranian leadership sees it, Tehran came out of this round of quasi-warfare with the United States with the upper hand. The ballistic missile attack, however limited, conveyed a convincing deterrent message to both Trump and the Gulf states.
The declarations by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the United States has “restored its deterrence” vis-à-vis Iran are therefore premature. Such claims could foster a dangerous illusion among local actors regarding supposed weakness in the Iranian leadership, a misconception that could have regional ramifications.
When it comes to Iran’s ongoing activity in Syria and Iraq, either directly or through Shi’ite militias under the authority of the Quds Force, Israel should take Washington’s optimistic view of the situation with a grain of salt. Jerusalem should be wary of an overly confident intelligence assessment that encourages a more militant approach to Iran’s presence in Syria based on the assumption that Tehran will be more restrained now that Soleimani is gone.
This is a very real concern. According to media reports regarding the main points of IDF Military Intelligence’s (Aman’s) 2020 intelligence assessment, Aman believes Soleimani’s death has potentially opened a window for Israel to step up its efforts regarding Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and continued attempts to transfer technology needed for Hezbollah to produce its own precision-guided missiles within Lebanon.
The Israeli intelligence community must derive its assessments as far as Iran is concerned from worst-case scenarios based on analysis of Tehran’s capabilities and intentions in the Middle East. The Iranians already believe they can now deter the United States from escalating tensions in the wake of their ballistic missile fire at the bases in Iraq.
Coming just a few months after Iran’s remarkable targeted strike on the Saudi oil-processing facilities, the impressive accuracy and substantial damage wrought by the retaliatory missile attack on the Iraqi bases has considerably reinforced Tehran’s deterrence. It is doubtful that this deterrence was undermined by the U.S.’s boldness in killing Soleimani.
Israel cannot allow itself to believe Washington’s overly optimistic message. It would do well to continue the cautious, calculated policy that has characterized its surgical military strikes against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.
Dr. Raphael G. Bouchnik-Chen is a retired colonel who served as a senior analyst in IDF Military Intelligence.
This is an edited version of an article first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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