Title: SFS On Topic: Crisis in Iran
The U.S. has long labeled Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, largely because of the Quds Force and its tactics. Without sufficient resources to support a traditional army, Iran has turned to relatively low-cost support for terrorism to advance its foreign policy initiatives, expand its influence in the region, and protect its national security, as vice dean for undergraduate affairs and SFS professor Daniel Byman says in the Washington Post. In an article published in Foreign Policy, Byman argues that Soleimani, the man who built much of the “Iran Threat Network,” is not as irreplaceable to that effort as some analysts think. Byman says Soleimani “personally nurtured relationships with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthi groups in Yemen, Palestinian terrorists, and paramilitary groups in Iraq,” networks that can continue to exist under new leadership. Unlike some of its terrorist group partners, Byman says that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps does not rely solely on charismatic leaders and has a large reserve of experienced military officers ready to continue Soleimani’s work. The largest blow, at least in the short term, may be to the public propaganda image of the late general, which Iran has used to curry favor among an increasingly restless population.
The Decision to Kill Soleimani
Following the drone strike, the U.S. publicly claimed responsibility for the attack. Associate Professor of Security Studies Caitlin Talmadge writes in an article in the Washington Post that this may have been a mistake. Talmadge cites Soleimani’s status as a top government official as evidence that his death will be a significant blow to Iran. “By conducting such a high-profile attack and announcing it to the world when regional tensions are already so high, the Trump administration has maximized the likelihood that Iran will feel compelled to respond in a big way,” Talmadge says, a statement that rings true in light of the January 8 retaliatory drone strikes. Rather than accomplishing its goal of leaving the Middle East, she says that the move guarantees that the United States will be further entangled in the region for years to come.
The use of military force against Maj. Gen. Soleimani has been called a high-risk means of delivering a message of deterrence. Yet, SFS Professor Elizabeth Saunders called into question the effectiveness of this strategy in a New York Times article. As she puts it, “If I’m one country and you’re another country and I want you to do something or not do something, if you comply with my demands I have to hold up my end of the bargain.” In her view, the Trump administration’s demands are unclear, rendering the strategy futile. In addition, Saunders criticized the U.S. decision to publicly claim responsibility for the attack, which she says blew up “a delicate dance, a mix of public signals and private signals” and gave Iran no choice but to retaliate.
In a tweet on January 4 immediately following the drone strike, President Trump warned that any Iranian attacks on Americans or American military assets would result in the destruction of 52 Iranian cultural heritage sites. In a Politifact article, SFS Professor Anthony Clark Arend notes that such an act would be in direct violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949, which dictates that members “shall refrain from any act directed by way of reprisals against cultural property.” If such destruction were to be “extensive, wantonly undertaken, and not militarily necessary,” he says, Article 147 of the Convention would increase the violation to a “grave breach,” ultimately making the U.S. guilty of a war crime.
Looking to the Future
Following the attack, many raised the question, “What next?” Despite Iran’s retaliatory drone strike on January 8 and the apparent deescalation of tension on both sides, threats to U.S. diplomats, military members, and other personnel remain, spanning multiple theaters and potentially materializing in many forms, including cyber, direct attacks, or political ramifications. In a prescient Vox article published immediately following the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, SFS Professor Daniel Byman warns that the blowback may be huge, depending on how well the U.S. prepares itself and its allies for Iran’s inevitable retaliation. “Based on the Trump administration’s record in the region, there is reason to be worried,” he says. In a time when strong U.S. allies are more critical than ever, “the Trump administration has spurned many traditional allies, thumbing its nose at NATO, Australia, and others.” Additionally, the move requires long-term planning, an approach Byman deems unlikely considering the administration’s desire to take its troops out of the Middle East.
In a television interview on CBS News, SFS Professor Matthew Kroenig contrasted Iranian capabilities for retaliation with its political calculations. Kroenig says the Supreme Leader “would look weak” if he does not retaliate in some way, but adds that the Supreme Leader ultimately does not want a major war with the United States, which could potentially lead to the end of his regime. “My guess is right now that the Supreme Leader is meeting with his advisors, looking for a ‘Goldilocks’ approach,” Kroenig predicts. Whether or not the January 8 attack on U.S. military bases was Khamenei’s ‘Goldilocks’ solution, however, remains to be seen.
The Iranian Response
Iran’s initial military response came early in the morning, local time, on January 8, when more than a dozen Iranian missiles hit two air bases in Iraq which are used by U.S. troops. The attack targeted military equipment and did not cause any casualties. Appearing on CNN, Talmadge says that this was deliberate. “Initial reports do suggest Iran may have been looking for an off-ramp here, a way to publicly retaliate and respond but in a pretty calibrated and careful way.” She noted that the timing and location of the attack, the kind of weapons used, as well as the advance warning given to the Iraqis show that Iran did not intend to cause casualties.
“Those are not things you do when your desire is to cause a lot of casualties. Those are things you want to do when you want to send a message but have it careful and have it be limited with the real power in the message being the potential to do more.”
On January 8, hours after Iran’s retaliatory missile strike, an Iranian air defense operator mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger plane, killing 176, among them 63 Canadians. Iran eventually took responsibility for the crash, but Talmadge told the Economist that the error stunted Iran’s efforts to seek international sympathy as a victim of America, as well as their attempts to present a strong domestic image. She says this strike is analogous to other times nations in a state of high alert have shot down passenger planes while mistaking them for enemy aircraft, attributing the disaster to false interpretations of ambiguous information. The most recent example was the 2014 Russian-backed rebel attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine.
One way that Iran could retaliate is through cyber means, according to assistant teaching professor Ben Buchanan, who was interviewed on Marketplace. He points to misinformation about American troops withdrawing from Kuwait that went up on the Twitter account of Kuwait’s state news agency on January 8, due to an alleged hacking. “We don’t know with certainty that those have been traced to Iran, but it would seem to fit the fact pattern reasonably well,” Buchanan said.
While cyberattacks are a part of Iran’s arsenal, Byman outlined a broader array of options in an article published in Slate. Depending on its assessment of the risks involved, Iran may choose to use its connections in Iraq for retaliation, allowing it to keep conflicts off of its own soil. Byman also says Iran’s extensive network could be employed to target U.S. officials in other theaters, such as Latin America or Asia, American civilians abroad, or even personalized attacks targeting Trump properties.