The elimination of Qasem Soleimani was meant to signal to Iran that it must end its military provocations against the US and its allies in the Middle East. The targeted killing was a demonstration of how the application of very limited use of force toward a valuable target can produce desirable results. It has deterrent value.
Such limited military activity with almost no collateral damage outside Iranian territory is much less risky than a full-scale war. From now on, Iranian calculations must take into consideration the cost to be exacted by the American military. The strike on Soleimani warns Iran that the option for expanded US use of force against Iran is on the table.
Over the past year, there was considerable doubt about America's determination to confront Iran. The Trump administration failed to respond resolutely to an Iranian downing a US drone and to Iranian attacks on American installations in Iraq. Iran was under the (correct) impression that President Donald Trump was not interested in engaging in war in the Middle East, and certainly not in an election year. Iran believed it had great leeway in acting to undermine America's presence and interests in the Mideast.
Trump has made it clear that attacks on Americans are going to elicit a military reaction.
This has now changed. Trump has made it clear that attacks on American personnel are going to elicit a military reaction. The American strike reminds Iran that there are limits to what the US, even one with isolationist instincts, is willing to tolerate.
Moreover, Washington has sent a clear message to Tehran that it has military options short of war (which indeed would not be popular in the US). Trump says that he has a list of 52 Iranian targets that could be hit if Iran retaliates. Furthermore, limited US attacks with little potential for American casualties and collateral damage might have positive domestic benefits. Americans will "rally around the flag" if Tehran retaliates against American targets and Trump lashes back.
The cries of revenge coming from Tehran reflect several facets of Iranian understanding of the situation.
First, Tehran was surprised by American temerity in killing such a senior Iranian official, and therefore feels a genuine need for a commensurate military response.
Second, Tehran realizes that the disappearance of Gen. Soleimani from the stage is a great loss and setback. He was a creative officer who understood the usefulness of proxies and a good organizer able to build a motley of proxy militias ready to fight for promoting Iranian interests. His charismatic leadership instilled motivation and an esprit de corps. It will not be easy to replace quickly his skills, experience and honed instincts.
But it should also be understood that Iranian threats of retaliation are to a certain extent a face-saving measure – because the options for Iranian response are limited.
Indeed, fears of Iranian retribution and escalation are greatly exaggerated. An immediate Iranian military reaction is unlikely. The modus operandi of the ayatollahs is slow and cautious. They take their time and calculate the desired optimal response. And over the long term, Iranian leadership understands the dangers of a direct military confrontation with the US and will seek to avoid it.
The death of Soleimani adds to American "maximum pressure" on the Iranian regime. It will lead to a reevaluation of the character of the Trump regime and it should infuse greater caution in Iran activities on ground. We can expect strikes, primarily by proxies, against American military forces and symbolic American targets such as embassies and/or diplomats. Additional attacks on oil facilities of American allies in the Gulf are also an Iranian option.
But the most significant Iranian response has taken place already – the declaration that Iran is lifting all limitations on uranium enrichment. It is not clear yet how the Iranians will proceed on this issue, but the race to the bomb is back. This is the main strategic challenge for the West and for Israel.
If Washington maintains economic pressure on Iran and makes additional demonstrations of limited use of force, Iran may change course and come to the negotiating table. This is what Trump wants.
Only the physical destruction of Iranian nuclear installations will prevent an Iranian bomb.
Renewed US-Iran nuclear talks would be very problematic, because the Iranians are skilled and experienced at using negotiations to shield their nuclear program. Their patient negotiating skills are much better than those of the Europeans and the Americans, as evidenced by the terrible JCPOA (the nuclear agreement of 2015).
The bitter truth is that the Iranian regime will not give up its quest for the bomb, which is its ultimate insurance policy. Only the physical destruction of Iranian nuclear installations will prevent an Iranian bomb.
In the meantime, the world is better off without the dangerous Qasem Soleimani.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.