MEF Radio host Gregg Roman interviewed Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on January 8 about the significance of President Trump's targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and its implications for future U.S.-Iran relations.
According to Clawson, the fact that anyIranian was killed is a potential game-changer, as the U.S. has traditionally shied away from "kinetic action" against Iran. Henceforth, Iranian leaders "will always have to factor into their future decisions the possibility that the United States may react with military force in a way which previously they were not concerned about."
This creates "a potential for high payoff," said Clawson, drawing a parallel to the U.S. Navy's accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988. Coming at a time when the U.S. was proving "massive" amounts of intelligence to Saddam Hussein's Iraq for a major offensive to regain territory captured by Iran during their eight-year war, Ayatollah Khomeini "decided the U.S. was joining the Iraqi side ... and that Iran would have to accept a ceasefire." In that case, "kinetic action, inadvertent as it was, had a big payoff, namely the end of a bloody war in which hundreds of thousands of people died."
Such a change in calculus probably won't come just from killing Soleimani. "Additional work will be needed in order to make that gamble pay off," said Clawson. For now, he expects Iran to push forward with its objective of pushing the U.S. out of Iraq. Iran's January 8 missile strike on two U.S. bases in Iraq was "just Iran checking the box of the immediate retaliation," he said. "Now comes serious long- term planning. ... I suspect that Iran will pull out all the stops to mobilize its proxies in Iraq to try to force the U.S. military ... to leave Iraq. That's very high on Iran's agenda, and they will prepare to sacrifice a lot in order to accomplish that objective."
"Additional work will be needed in order to make [Trump's] gamble pay off."
Iran may have difficulty mounting a full-throttle insurgency against U.S. interests, however. Reaction in Iraq to Soleimani's killing has been muted because Soleimani was "an Iranian national figure, ... not a revolutionary ... or an Islamic figure." While Iran succeeded in pressuring the Iraqi parliament to vote to expel U.S. forces, "a majority of parliamentary members ... boycott[ed] the session .... That showed quite a bit of courage on the part of the people who were not there." Even the Shiite members present likely did not (as they claimed) constitute a quorum. Clawson said that some parliamentarians contacted his office to explain that their vote was made under duress, in an atmosphere of threats of retribution against them and their family members.
Notwithstanding Soleiman's lack of popularity in Iraq and across the region, Clawson cautioned that the U.S. should not underestimate his appeal to many ordinary Iranians:
Soleimani was indeed an Iranian national figure, and in fact, unifying national figure, which meant that many people in Iran who don't like the Islamic Republic are mourning Soleimani's passing. There is this sense in Iran that there was a real danger to the country from ISIS 5 years ago. You may recall that there were ISIS attacks on the Iranian parliament building in the center of Tehran and on Khomeini's tomb. And there was a sense that, "My gosh ... all of that confusion and chaos, death that was occurring in northern Iraq at a time and in Syria could come to Iran," and that's where Soleimani and the Quds force is what saved Iran from that horrible disaster. So, that made him ... respected reluctantly among many people in Iran who can't stand the regime.
Consequently, while the administration should make clear that it will not tolerate the Iranian regime "inflict[ing] serious damage" on the U.S., President Trump should take pains to convey to the Iranians that "this is a campaign against the Islamic Republic government and not against the people of Iran."
"We're going to be more effective if we have a united position."
Addressing divisions within the American political establishment, Clawson cautioned the Trump administration to avoid exacerbating the partisan divide, while urging its opponents to avoid knee-jerk partisanship. "Many of the same people who criticize Mr. Trump for not acting after the Iranian attacks on the Saudi facilities are now criticizing Mr. Trump for acting when Qassem Soleimani was planning additional attacks," he said. "These are tough decisions with real consequences and we're going to be more effective if we have a united position."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.