UCLA International Institute, January 21, 2020 — The assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by U.S. military forces in Iraq has created a tinderbox situation in the Middle East that could easily erupt into war between the U.S. and Iran,* concluded a panel discussion held at UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations on January 16.
Led by Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, The Promise Institute Professor of Comparative and International Law at UCLA School of Law, the panel featured two Middle East experts who spoke in an interview format: Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and senior political scientist, RAND Corporation; and Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and professor and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA.
High danger with no clear end game
With the assassination, said Kaye, “[w]hat was until that point a proxy conflict involving forces that the United States has supported and the Iranians have supported became, on Iraqi territory, a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.” Neither Kaye nor Waxman thought the crisis was over, agreeing that it would likely continue via other means, such as cyber attacks and perhaps other targeted assassinations (for example, of Iranian nuclear scientists).
Uncertainties, miscalculations, or unanticipated events could easily cause the heated situation to explode. Among the uncertainties, said Kaye and Waxman, are the outcome of Iranian parliamentary elections in February and U.S. presidential elections in November, inarticulate U.S. foreign policy, unpredictable U.S. decision making and lack of a comprehensible, strategic understanding of U.S. interests in the region.
The mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner by Iran on January, and the attendant deaths of the 176 people on board, was precisely the kind of unanticipated event that could become a flashpoint, said Raustiala.
And given the significant impact that the upcoming U.S. presidential election could have on the region, Kaye believed allies of the Trump administration in the Middle East might have an incentive to pursue contentious actions before November. In contrast, opponents such as the Iranians might may wait to see the election’s outcome.
Background: U.S. steadily increased pressure against Iran
“We really saw the ratcheting up of U.S.-Iran tensions [predate] the Soleimani strike,” commented Kaye. In addition to withdrawing from the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in 2018, she identified the Trump administration’s open embrace of brutal authoritarian governments in the Middle East as disruptive for the region.
Waxman added the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the list of disruptions, an intervention he said had destabilized the region, empowered Shia-dominated governments in Iraq and opened the door to greater Iranian influence in the region, especially in the “greater crescent” of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The Trump administration has now pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran for about a year, noted Kaye, including punishing economic sanctions and the virtual shutting down of Iranian oil exports.
“As of May 2019, Iranian strategic patience ran out,” she said, pointing to Iranian strikes against Saudi oil facilities and an unmanned U.S. drone in summer 2019 and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq by Iranian-linked protesters in December. The killing of Soleimani, regardless of its legality (which panel participants did not believe had yet been proven) further ramped up tensions, as it constituted “a direct attack on the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic,” she noted.
Waxman viewed the crisis as “a product of America's difficulty in coming to terms with [the] expansion of Iranian power [in the region], the fear that this has provoked in Iran's regional neighbors — in particular the Saudis and the Israelis.
“If the U.S. is slowly on its way out of the Middle East, what we are beginning to see is renewed competition for power between the potential regional hegemons: Israel, the Saudis and the Iranians,” he added. “And, unfortunately, as that happens, we are going to see more of these kinds of crises.”
Today, the U.S. has no agreement with Iran and no comprehensible strategy for managing the crisis. Waxman contended that the Iranians were following the “North Korean example” and would push forward with threats to make the U.S. negotiate with them.
However, neither Kaye nor Waxman believed that Iran would conclude a new agreement with the U.S. that would constrain its nuclear enrichment and nuclear arms development and require it to cease using proxy militia forces throughout the Middle East. Iran would see such an agreement as capitulation, said Waxman.
“We had a nuclear deal — not perfect — but it was containing the problem,” observed Kaye. “We were not having U.S. forces targeted as we were during the Iraq War. “But in recent years, they were not targeted until [Soleimani’s killing] happened, because Iran is playing a very calculated game.”
Not only did the assassination bring tensions to a dangerous level, said Waxman, but “the kind of bombast that accompanied it actually undermined the one rationale that I think was there, which was a deterrence [rationale].
“There needs to a serious discussion about how to de-escalate this,” he cautioned. “It can't just be ‘maximum pressure,’ maximalist goals – if that's the approach, then I think there is a real high risk of conflict.” In particular, he believed the Iranian regime could not withstand four more years of severe economic sanctions and would at some point feel forced to take retaliatory action.
The panelists concurred that a rethinking of U.S. interests in the Middle East is essential. Rather than prop up dictatorships in pursuit of stability, Kaye argued the U.S. needed a long-term policy that promoted the interests of the region’s inhabitants.
“The yearning of the people in this region is to have governance that serves people, the end of repression, the end of corruption [and] the end of inequities,” she commented.
“No one really understands what the [U.S.] strategy is,” insisted Waxman. “[T]he United States is stuck in the Middle East and increasingly without any clear rationale.” Added Kaye, “Things on the ground could take a dynamic of their own — a lot of things can go wrong.”
*Killed by a U.S. missile strike on January 3, Soleimani was the longtime leader of the Iranian Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Considered the second-most important official in the Iranian government before his death, Soleimani and the IRGC were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans during the Iraq war, especially by means of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In recent years, however, he and the Quds Force had worked with the United States to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Iran retaliated for his death on January 8 by launching missiles against a U.S. military base in Iraq. The strikes did not kill any U.S. soldiers, but wounded 11. Its government then indicated that it did not seek escalation of the conflict.