If the Iranians played the game the same way that U.S. President Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would be a simple tit-for-tat. Just kill U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organized the hit and then boasted about it.
If Pompeo is too hard to get at, the Iranians could get even by murdering any one or two of 100 other senior U.S. officials. Probably two, because the U.S. drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian paramilitary group in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.
Tit-for-tat is clearly the game Trump thinks he is playing. That’s why he warned late on Saturday on Twitter that the U.S. has identified 52 Iranian sites, some "at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture," and warned they would be "HIT VERY FAST AND HARD" if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s murder.
It’s a quite serious threat, especially the part about destroying sites important to "the Iranian culture," by which Trump presumably means archaeological sites, famous mosques and the like. He is belatedly frightened by the potential consequences of his impulsive order to kill Soleimani, and he’s trying to threaten his way out of an open U.S.-Iran war.
But Trump won’t end up in a major war unless he actually wants one. The United States could not win a war against Iran (unless it just nuked the whole country), but Iran could not win that war either, and it would take terrible damage in an all-out American assault on the country. Tehran is not going to give American hawks any excuse to start bombing.
The Iranians will certainly continue their existing policy of carrying out deniable, pin-prick attacks on U.S. assets and allies in the Gulf in retaliation for the U.S. sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy, and they might not be able to resist the temptation to kill Pompeo if he wandered into their reach. But their revenge for the assassination of Soleimani may be much subtler than that.
He was important, but he was not irreplaceable: the graveyards are full of indispensable men. The men who run Iranian policy will already have realized that the U.S. killing on Iraqi soil of General Soleimani, an important foreign leader invited by the Iraqi government, creates an opportunity for Iran to get American forces out of Iraq without firing a shot.
Ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis. Seventeen years later, there are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias.
There have been times, such as during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, when U.S. troops and the pro-Iran militias managed to co-operate for a while. Fundamentally, however, they are rival foreign-controlled forces struggling to gain the upper hand over a weak and corrupt Iraqi government.
Lately, the pro-Iran faction has been losing ground. When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.
But now Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is yet another Shia martyr to the cause. The prime minister of Iraq showed up at his huge funeral procession in Baghdad on Saturday, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution demanding the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The legal case is clear: the U.S. action was a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The legislation passed easily, because Iraqi politicians are very afraid of the anger in the streets at the moment, and they need to wrap themselves in the Iraqi flag. Iran could finally win the long tug-of-war with America over Iraq — and what would Donald Trump do then?
He has no idea yet, of course — he doesn’t ever think ahead that far — but American voters don’t give a damn about what happens to American influence in Iraq, so he could just curse the ungrateful Iraqis and pull the U.S. troops out. It could actually play well for him in the November election.
Even if the Iraqi politicians had gone on trying to appease both sets of foreigners, Iran’s revenge is likely to present itself in different ways at a later date. Whatever happens, in the end it will probably play out in a way that is carefully chosen to minimize the risk of a general war.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).