Trump’s Middle East problem this decade will be Moscow, not Tehran
My response to the news that US forces had assassinated Qassem Soleimani was: “Good riddance. Now what?” No tears should be shed for Soleimani. As the mastermind of Iran’s numerous proxy wars beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders, he had the blood of countless people on his hands, including hundreds of American and coalition soldiers killed by the Shi’ite militias he helped to train and finance. Second only to the Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in personal power, Soleimani had come to personify the ruthless, bloodthirsty spirit of the regime in Tehran.
But what will the consequences be of his assassination? Let us begin by dismissing that hardy perennial, “Oh no! Reckless Donald Trump has lit the fuse for the Third World War.” At a time such as this, commentators in need of a facile historical analogy inevitably reach for the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, generally regarded as the catalyst for the First World War.
But Soleimani was no Ferdinand. First, it was Bosnian-Serb terrorists backed by Serbian military intelligence who carried out the hit on the legitimate heir to the august Austro-Hungarian imperial throne. Soleimani’s career as a sponsor of terrorism puts him closer to the Sarajevo assassin, Gavrilo Princip, than to his victim.
Second, the Middle East in January 2020 is not Europe in June 1914. The great powers then were quite evenly matched; each made the mistake of thinking that it might gain from a full-scale European war. Today, Iran’s leaders are under no illusions. They cannot risk a war with the vastly superior United States, which numbers among its allies both the richest state in the region (Saudi Arabia) and the most technologically advanced (Israel).
A better analogy might be with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, “the man with the iron heart” (Hitler’s grim accolade), the founding head of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), the creator of the genocidal Einsatzgruppen and the brutal tyrant of the dismembered Czechoslovakia, who was fatally wounded by British-trained agents of the Czech government in exile in May 1942.
The British government’s decision to train and send Heydrich’s killers was made in the full knowledge that there would be harsh reprisals. There were. In the erroneous belief that the assassins were connected to the villages of Lidice and Lezaky, Hitler ordered the execution of all their male inhabitants over 16, as well as all the women of Lezaky. More than 1,300 Czechs perished in this orgy of vengeance.
Winston Churchill, who was fond of the kind of “dirty war” waged by the Special Operations Executive, favoured further retaliation, proposing that the RAF wipe out three German villages for every Czech one destroyed. Only with difficulty did the other members of the war cabinet dissuade him.
In much the same way, Trump and his advisers knew when they took the decision to launch an airstrike on Soleimani that there would be reprisals. There will be. On Friday, Khamenei tweeted the hashtag #SevereRevenge. Stand by for attacks by Iranian forces and their Shi’ite proxies on US personnel, as well as against US allies, all over the Middle East. The question is will the benefits of killing Soleimani outweigh those costs?
Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, in response to Abraham Lincoln’s murder, that “assassination has never changed the history of the world”. He was wrong. As Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken show in my favourite economics paper on this subject — which covers all 298 assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004 — successful assassinations tend to increase the intensity of small-scale conflicts. But when an autocrat is killed, the probability of a transition to democracy rises.
The downside of killing Soleimani is that Iraq will now blow up. Freed from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny by the US invasion of 2003, it is a democracy with only limited US security support. Iranian penetration of Shi’ite militias and political parties means that it is dangerously close to becoming a vassal of Tehran. Significantly, the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has condemned the US strike against Soleimani. The danger is a return to civil war.
This assassination does nothing to solve the problem created by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, when he decided to liquidate the US presence in Iraq in excessive haste, squandering all that had been achieved in the “surge” that ended the last Iraqi civil war.
The upside of killing Soleimani is that the Iran regime’s bluff has been called and its vulnerability exposed for everyone in the region to see.
Iran is in dire economic straits, largely because of American sanctions, which the Trump administration tightened last year. Oil production is down by nearly half since April 2018. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Iranian economy shrank by 9.5% last year. The Statistical Centre for Iran puts the inflation rate at 47.2%.
The country’s beleaguered rulers gambled that they could force America to relax sanctions by exerting force, in the belief that Trump would not risk war in an election year. Wrong. America may now face pandemonium in Iraq, but Iran will not necessarily be the beneficiary. There is a good deal of anti-Iranian sentiment in the country; indeed, there have been numerous anti-Iranian protests since October and many in Iraq celebrated Soleimani’s obliteration last week.
It is in the wider regional struggle for mastery, however, that Iran is most obviously at a disadvantage. Last July Israel struck Iranian targets in Iraq, where Iran is believed to have stockpiled missiles. In September it was the turn of Hezbollah, Iran’s client in Lebanon. The Israelis have also been hitting Iran’s forces in Syria. Last month Israel’s defence minister, Naftali Bennett, threatened to turn Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam”.
Aside from Qatar, the Arab states are uniformly hostile to Tehran. Not only are the Saudis still smarting from Iran’s attack on their oil facilities in September; they also bitterly resent Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the Europeans are finding it harder to keep the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action alive, as Iranian violations grow ever more flagrant.
As for the other main players in the region — Russia and Turkey — they are increasingly antagonistic to Iran. With the Syrian civil war all but over, Moscow is intent on squeezing out the Iranians.
Civil war in Iraq? Quite possibly. A Third World War? Forget about it. The unanswered question is what, if anything, can be done to reverse the biggest trend of the past decade, which has been Russia — not Iran — taking over from the United States as the Middle East’s powerbroker. The assassination of Soleimani changes many things. It doesn’t change that.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford