The National Interest:

Enea Gjoza is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. 

In a missile strike in Baghdad this month, U.S. forces killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional influence operations and arguably its second most powerful figure. Iran quickly promised “forceful revenge” in the form of a military response, and has since launched missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq—thankfully, no casualties have been reported. Still, this does not mean safety is guaranteed indefinitely for the more than fifty thousand U.S. troops in the turbulent Middle East, with more reportedly on the way, along with many contractors, diplomats, and civilians.

A full-blown war with Iran would be more costly than Iraq, in terms of both lives and treasure, and spur regional upheaval and anti-U.S. terrorism for years to come. But even if a shooting war fails to materialize, the recent missile attacks show that Suleimani’s death keeps the U.S. mired in an increasingly risky tit-for-tat with Iran, committing outsized resources and attention to a third-rate power in a region of limited and diminishing strategic importance. U.S. interests are far better served tackling higher priorities—ending fruitless foreign operations that have overstretched the military and improving the nation’s fiscal strength to tackle the challenges of the next decade.

Suleimani’s death was a loss for Tehran, though not an irreplaceable one. An equally experienced successor has already been named, and Iran’s support for proxies in the region will continue, if not accelerate. But there are limits to Iran’s ability to influence the Middle East.

Iran is ultimately a Shia theocracy in a mostly Sunni neighborhood, with a fragile and weakening economy, few friends internationally, an aging military, and tenuous domestic support for the regime. Far from building a regional empire, Iran is forced to use the resources it does have—its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—to check its many local adversaries. With domestic discontent growing as Iran’s economy contracts, the United States can only lose by miscalculating into another war—one that like Iraq, we win militarily but lose strategically.

 

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