As the Middle East convulses from the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani—and as U.S. military forces and their Iraqi partners endure Iran’s reprisals—a subset of foreign-policy veterans has cheered the decision. As the New York Times reported on Jan. 6, the strike even elicited praise from some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s consistent critics on the right, including leading Iraq War proponents who have otherwise found him too timid on the world stage.
In turn, many of the ideological architects of one of the United States’ most disastrous foreign-policy decisions—the 2003 invasion of Iraq—are spinning a tale to support the president’s most dangerous move to date. It is no surprise that the arguments they are putting forward now are just as misguided as those from nearly 20 years ago.
The most prominent such argument relies on the idea that Iran and its proxies understand only the language of strength and military might. That’s why, in the parlance of some supporters, the hit against Suleimani was necessary to “restore deterrence.”
In truth, whatever the concept of restoring deterrence may promise in theory, it bears little resemblance to reality. Trump’s defenders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, may claim that the strike has thrown Iran off balance. But in truth, the level of uncertainty and risk on both sides remains extremely high. Logic and history suggest that further attacks from Iran—via proxies, militias, or other asymmetric actions—are probable. Indeed, even if Tehran is satisfied with its response to date, namely some 20 missiles fired at bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops, its proxies and those inspired by them may feel no such restraint.
In any event, it is not at all clear after months of escalatory action on both sides that the events of recent days represent the end point. After all, a supposed need to restore deterrence will always be available as justification for further military action. As if on cue, after the strikes on Iraqi bases, Trump’s defenders, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and television commentator Sean Hannity, have already called for additional U.S. action to—once again—restore deterrence.
Some of Trump’s backers have also made the case that the Suleimani operation will weaken Iran—both at home and abroad. In their telling, the killing demonstrated to the Iranian people that their regime is not invincible and untouchable. Some have pointed to the protests currently roiling Iran to bolster this claim. In doing so, they ignore the backdrop of deep and persistent (and understandable) public anger at Tehran’s incompetence, corruption, and authoritarianism as drivers of the current unrest. In this case, Tehran’s initial dishonesty over the downing of the Ukrainian airliner was the trigger, much as a controversy over gas prices sparked anti-government protests late last year.
This thinking also buys into the very idea it seeks to dispel. It implicitly accepts the premise that Suleimani was singular, even mythical. He was prominent, of course, but he rose to power over the course of more than two decades as the commander of the elite Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran’s leadership has already named his successor—Esmail Ghaani, a fellow Iranian general who served as Suleimani’s longtime deputy.
Ghaani’s own rise will take time, just as Suleimani’s did. Nevertheless, his path may well be easier because of the long leash he now presumably enjoys. Iran’s leadership is almost certainly more willing to countenance a major operation or set of operations against the United States than before Trump’s strike. And, among Iranians and sympathetic audiences throughout the region, Ghaani will accrue much of the credit for avenging his predecessor if there is a more muscular response.
Boosters of the Suleimani operation have further claimed that it will have the same effect as taking out al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which they say hindered the activities of those terrorist groups. But the counterterrorism analogy misses a key point: Nonstate actors are profoundly different from state entities, and decapitation strikes are only effective, if at all, when a network is already hollowed out. The Iranian military, in this sense, is nothing like the shells of their former selves that al Qaeda or Islamic State were at the time of their leaders’ deaths. If anything, Suleimani’s death will have done little more than steel the resolve among the ranks of Iran’s formal military and its proxies.
Then there’s the broader regional dynamic, with claims from Trump supporters that Suleimani’s death will neutralize Tehran’s capabilities throughout the Middle East. We don’t yet know whether his killing will precipitate a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But it will, in all likelihood, result in a diminished U.S. footprint and a further reduction of U.S. influence in Baghdad. With U.S. troops under lockdown, the country’s diplomatic presence shrinking, and the State Department warning Americans to stay away, Iran will have an advantage in cementing its hold over Iraqi politics at a key moment. The same broader dynamic may well play out elsewhere in the region.
Finally, the strike’s defenders say it was necessary because of the Iran nuclear deal, which, in their telling, enriched and emboldened Iran and Suleimani’s Quds Force. On the question of finances, the deal didn’t offer Tehran anywhere close to $150 billion, which is what Trump alleges it handed the regime. Rather, in return for a prohibition on Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, the United States, along with its allies, partners, and the United Nations, allowed Iran access to a fraction of that amount of its own previously frozen funds. And when it came to using that money, even senior Trump administration officials have publicly conceded that Iran’s unfrozen funds went primarily to domestic uses, including debt servicing.
Even at the height of international sanctions, however, Tehran amply funded its military forces and regional proxies. It’s certainly not the case that Iran needed to have its money unfrozen to sustain military activity. Far from it. The IRGC has a relatively small budget, which Iran has always prioritized. What’s more, the pre- (and post-) Iran deal sanctions offered the corps an edge because it tends to thrive off corruption derived from the black market economy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sought to take advantage of sanctions relief to marginalize the IRGC’s role in the Iranian economy, even attempting to roll back its government contracts. And Iran’s proxy forces are even cheaper. According to Trump administration figures, Iran has spent an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion annually to support its regional allies—money that it would have had even under the most intense sanctions pressure.
Then there’s the claim that the deal emboldened Tehran, which is just as false. After all, when the United States was part of the agreement—under both President Barack Obama and Trump—there were no Iranian or proxy attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, which changed after the United States departed the deal. Nor was there the same level and brazenness of attacks throughout the broader region aimed at undermining the United States or its partners, including the downing of a U.S. military drone, the attacks on tankers in the Gulf, and the sophisticated assault on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil production facility.
Indeed, it was not the Iran deal that set the conditions for the Suleimani strike; rather, it was Trump’s decision to abandon it in spite of the advice of his national security team and the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that the deal was working. Attempting to place blame on one of the signature foreign-policy achievements of the prior administration may be good politics for Trump’s base, but it is not based in reality.
As for what comes next, Esper was right about one thing when he said of the implications: “Time will tell.” When it does, and if history is any guide, the operation’s defenders will cling to arguments that have already been widely discredited—with profoundly dangerous results.