There may be further retaliation for the assassination in Baghdad last January of the man who was effectively the number-two official in Iran's government, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leader Qassem Soleimani.
Assuming Trump leaves office in January, the attack may come before he does so. If so, Trump’s crude boast raises the question, what should be the United States’s response?
As a legal and moral matter, Soleimani richly deserved his violent demise. Iran’s arch-terrorist, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force, Soleimani played roles in the deaths of hundreds of American diplomats, servicemen, and intelligence officers in Lebanon in the 1980s, including the kidnapping and torture of some; the deaths of dozens more U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia and East Africa in the 1990s; and the deaths of hundreds more Americans in Iraq in the first decade of this century. (The 9/11 Commission, after consideration, took a cautiously agnostic view of possible Iranian involvement in that attack.)
Soleimani was plotting further bloody mayhem against us when a Reaper drone’s Hellfire missile hastened him on his journey across the river Styx. But whether killing him and publicly claiming credit for it was worth the candle, strategically speaking, remains an open question.
Millenarian terrorists such as those in al Qaeda and the Islamic State already do all they can to murder any American, and as such ought to be eliminated whenever possible.
Meanwhile, evil but rational state actors such as Iran’s ayatollahs presumably hold some of their capabilities back. The reason the U.S. has mostly refused to assassinate foreign leaders ourselves, other than some ill-considered plots in Africa and Latin America in the 1960s that never came to fruition, is that we’re too vulnerable, as an open society, to blow-back.
It’s easy to forget, given the excellent job done by the U.S. Secret Service, the lengthy list of American presidents and presidential candidates targeted for death: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton were shot at, while someone threw a grenade at George W. Bush; Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and Theodore Roosevelt were shot and wounded; and Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Huey Long, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy were shot dead. Leaders in democracies risk more than those in dictatorships.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is active inside the U.S. They operate out of their United Nations Mission in New York and their Interests Section in Washington. Iran assassinated a dissident in the D.C. suburbs in 1980 and plotted to kill a Saudi ambassador at a Georgetown restaurant in 2011 with a bomb that might have killed hundreds. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps does pre-operational surveillance of potential targets in the U.S., such as the New York City subway and the helipad near Wall Street where Marine One lands when presidents visit Manhattan. The ayatollahs are so brazen as to allow U.S. law enforcement to see their men doing so. Tehran also demonstrates to us that it maintains significant cyber-warfare capabilities.
Iran’s military retaliated for our strike against Soleimani with a ballistic missile attack days later on Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq that wounded 110 American servicemen. (I happened to serve there in 2006-07.) But what if the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or its catspaws such as Hezbollah further retaliate against American installations in the Middle East, with the added goal of being seen as chasing our forces out of a region that we were already departing? Or even inside the U.S.?
If the blow comes before Election Day, Trump will incline toward a heavy response, both on the merits, as well as in political hopes of the healthy “rally ‘round the flag” attitude most Americans have toward our commander-in-chief in a crisis. If the blow comes during violent domestic disorder that is feared between Election Day and Inauguration Day, perhaps it will be ignored, which would be a mistake. Or worse, an act could be blamed on American left- or right-wing extremists if it happens stateside and is not clearly attributable to Iran. If the blow comes after Inauguration Day, a new Biden administration might face the question of how to respond to an attack on our country, triggered by the arguably rash act of its predecessor, without being distracted from its own agenda.
The U.S. cannot afford another land war in the Middle East. As threats from peer competitors such as Russia and China grow, invading Iran, a large and nationalistic country, is unrealistic. Even stealthy bombing raids on enemy senior leadership targets in Tehran risk downed U.S. airmen, and the sort of hostage crises suffered by the Carter and Reagan administrations could dominate either Trump’s second term or Biden’s first. “Precision global strike” missiles are tempting to use, but risk a tragic false alarm of a nuclear launch. (Even if our other adversaries were given discrete advance warning, as President Kennedy said of a U.S. nuclear test that unexpectedly took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”)
On the other hand, there was the Clinton administration’s weak military response to Iraq’s 1993 plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush on a visit to Kuwait. The Clinton administration bombed Baghdad’s empty intelligence headquarters in the middle of the night, killing the janitorial staff and encouraging more truculence from Saddam Hussein for another decade.
Rather, if Tehran acts up, from standoff distances, we should destroy all Iranian air, artillery, and naval forces along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman’s shores, removing Tehran’s oft-voiced threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz or attack our regional allies. We should also eliminate their coastal and at-sea oil facilities. Further, we should neutralize or at least suppress their proxy forces in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and (if local authorities allow us) Iraq. Finally, offensive cyber weapons can shut down as much of Iran’s industrial economy as needed, for as long as needed.
America should be prepared to give Iran a big bloody nose if Tehran acts out over the next few months — but on our terms, while marshaling limited forces for future needs, and allowing whoever takes the oath of office on Jan. 20 to focus on our now-overwhelming domestic needs.