Iran's War With the United States Started Long Before Soleimani's Death | Opinion

Days after a targeted U.S. strike killed General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, America and Iran are caught at a critical juncture, their horns locked and feet seeking traction.

Weighing its next move, Iran faces a dilemma: How can it strike back at America with a blow strong enough to restore deterrence and mend the humiliating damage to its regime and national reputation? How can it not overreact and lead to a devastating war with a superpower-size enemy? Similarly, though in a somewhat less stressful position, the United States seeks to deter Iran from further attacks on its forces and its allies without starting another war of folly in the Middle East.

In such brinkmanship warfare, both tactics and overall strategy can drive things over the cliff. At the tactical level, when one engages in kinetic military action, what follows is often decided by weapon statistics. Hit or miss, dead or unscathed, makes all the difference. When Lebanese Hezbollah's missiles failed to strike an Israeli military vehicle last September, escalation was avoided. In kinetics, life and death are just seconds and inches apart, and potential for escalation is just as close.

At the strategic level, despite Einstein defining insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," one can never assume linear and continuous enemy reactions to repetitive action. While actions may recur, context is unique and ever-changing. The object of action is a responsive agent, adapting its learning curve at an unpredictable rate. And so any strategic vector is bound to reach a culmination point, when mounting resistance will bring its inflection.

Since last May, Iran has launched a series of brazen attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf, downed an American drone over international waters and struck Saudi Aramco with cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, all the while seeking to pressure the United States to lift its sanctions and fracture its alliances. Iran's victims not only avoided pushing back; most were reluctant even to name the evident perpetrator.

Iran's bayonet-probing met mush, and therefore it decided to push further. After a series of rocket attacks launched by Iran's proxy militias against bases of U.S. forces in Iraq, business seemed as usual: Proxies harass Americans and the United States contains the problem, with some complaint but little worse. This time, however, Iran was dead wrong. When Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah's rockets finally caused American casualties in December, a different reaction followed.

Soleimani's demise came after multiple misjudgments by Iran's leadership. First, they failed to know their enemy. Mistaking a sleeping lion for a dead one, they assumed that the United States' reluctance to forcefully respond to Iran's provocations extends linearly beyond the final red line: American blood. Second, they failed to recognize the change of approach manifested in the U.S. strike on Kataib Hezbollah camps. Third, they underestimated the symbolic, emotional and political effects of storming a U.S. Embassy. Fourth, they seemingly bought into their own boastful propaganda that the U.S. president "can't do anything," mixing up will and capability. Finally, they forgot to calculate Donald Trump's mercurial and disruptive decision-making style.

U.S. Embassy Baghdad
A handout picture received from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq on December 31, 2019, shows smoke billowing from a sentry box at an entrance of the Embassy in the capital Baghdad. U.S. Embassy in Iraq/AFP/Getty

Personally, Soleimani took these misjudgments to the next level and beyond. Confident of his hitherto status as untouchable, his arrival in Baghdad was anything but risk-aware. Hubris and complacency crowned his high-profile escort from the airport after American gunships were televised in the vicinity. The stage was set to turn erstwhile inconceivable into inevitable. Knowing neither enemy nor self, Soleimani's time was up. In fact, it was long past due.

With Soleimani dead and his revolution-exporting comrades vowing for apocalyptic revenge, concerns of escalation are justified. Yet war is not inevitable, and World War III fears are baseless. In the West, some describe the U.S. attack on Soleimani as an outrageous "act of war," in supposed contrast to the status quo ante. Though formally correct, this description reflects a state of deep denial, failing to recognize reality, yielding to Iran's strategy and playing into its hands.

The decade-long 1980s "War of Sacred Defense" against Iraq is the Iranian regime's formative trauma. Fully aware of war's devastating costs, Iran abhors it, while leveraging others' natural fears of war as a strategic deterrent and coercive tool.

Defying binary peace-or-war distinctions, except for paralyzing its rivals, Iran's art of war thrives in the gray zone. Tehran fights its enemies in a twilight war undeclared, low-burning under its victims' threshold of response. Fighting from other peoples' lands keeps battles away from Iran's territory. Attacking by other peoples' hands saves Iranian blood. In its slow-motion campaign of expansion, Iran trains, funds, arms and commands local proxy militias throughout the Middle East. While the proxies take the brunt of the battles, bearing the costs, Iran only covers expenses.

Iran's success, however, depends on its enemies accepting its rules. By Iran's playbook, its victims should busy themselves with proxies on their frontiers, losing blood and treasure while Iran enjoys immunity. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Israel found itself fighting mostly Iranian proxies, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies have been locked in conflict with Yemen's Houthis, under a shower of incoming Iranian armaments. In the past two decades, hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed and thousands wounded by local Iranian proxies. Iran has long been at war with the United States, though undeclared and unilateral. Until lately, this war was shaped by Iran's strategy and fought in Iran's comfort zone, to America's detriment.

"The highest form of warfare," said Sun Tzu, "is to attack strategy itself." The U.S. strike on Soleimani and its follow-up messaging did just that, not only depriving Iran of its top revolutionary diplomat-strategist but shaking the fundamentals of its strategy. The United States demonstrated that Iran's attacks by proxy do not grant its forces, and possibly its territory, immunity from direct retribution. It showed that America's restraint is not something to take for granted, and that a seemingly calculated challenge thought to be "below the threshold" may seriously misfire.

As Soleimani's close ally and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah learned after his botched operation leading to the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel, miscalculation and unintended consequences are the core risks of brinkmanship warfare. But most important, the U.S. finally recognized the undeclared state of war with Iran and began adapting accordingly. In war, command and control are valuable and legitimate targets. The U.S. strike belatedly accepted Iran's invitation and stepped into the twilight, only on its own terms.

Qassem Soleimani
Iranians march with a banner bearing an illustration of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3 against the killing of the top commander in a U.S. strike in Baghdad. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

Yet Soleimani's death is not the end of Iran's twilight war. Illustrious as he was, he is but one of many. His masters and comrades from Tehran to Beirut now vow to avenge him, threatening America and its allies. Once more, much to Iran's liking, the world is perplexed by a false dilemma: step back or face war. In fact, Iran is now both afraid of war and furious that after decades of its indirect offensive against an accepting America, its archrival finally chose to sidestep Iran's rules and strike back directly. Much criticism directed at the United States for raising the risk of war is out of Iran's book, by which "averting war" demands submissively accepting Iran's slow-burning attrition without response.

The most urgent issue is managing escalation while avoiding war. Even when both sides wish to avoid war, it may still erupt, the main reasons being miscalculation, overreaction and reflexive escalation. Although Iran abhors war, two contrasting roads may lead there nonetheless. One is spiraling escalation, and the other is the opposite: shying away from using limited force early enough. Trying to avoid war at all costs against an unabated aggressor may actually precipitate catastrophe, as Winston Churchill lamented in the mid-1930s. One can only speculate that an earlier pushback against Iran would have blunted Iran's aggression before the current juncture. Presently, seeking better clarity through communication with the enemy, as well as willingness to accept risk, may actually pave the way to de-escalation. Slowing the tempo of action and reaction is another key, avoiding tactical operations outpacing prudent decision-making.

Beyond preventing escalation lies the grander regional scheme of things. The key to relevant security policy in the Middle East is recognizing the composite and intertwined nature of its challenges. The region's double scourge of terrorism is not only the Sunni ISIS and Al-Qaeda but also the Shiite Quds Force and its affiliates. Iran itself is a combined hazard, nuclear and ballistic, subversive and terrorizing. Other root causes aside, any policy addressing one aspect only in Iran's strategy is bound to fail, as its various efforts are connected and mutually reinforcing. Policy approaches must recognize not only Iran's share in the problem but also our own false assumptions and unwitting acceptance of its dictates. Sun Tzu's "Know the enemy, know yourself," which Soleimani fatally botched, is still key to defeating Iran's art of war.

Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He formerly served as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) head of strategic planning.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Iran's War With the United States Started Long Before Soleimani's Death | Opinion | Opinion