The crisis over the Iranian downing of an American Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle has cooled somewhat but could flare up at any time. President Trump was right to call off a strike on Iranian facilities, even if his last-minute decision upset the process-oriented Pentagon. It was hardly the first time a president called off a strike just as the military was ready to move: Bill Clinton did exactly the same thing in November 1998, when he called off a missile strike on Iraq.
Trump said that he did not want 150 people killed in an operation against Iranian facilities. In any event, Tehran would have responded as it has in the past, not with a direct attack on U.S. forces but, rather, by indirection.
Indirect attacks, such as the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut — which elements of Hezbollah carried out but which Iran instigated — or the planting of Iranian IEDs by various insurgent groups during the course of the Iraq War, always have been Tehran’s preferred modus operandi. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was certainly at the center of the attacks in Iraq, and possibly that of Beirut as well, just as it appears to have been behind the attacks on two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Such attacks are as deniable as they are lethal, and are not geographically limited to the Middle East — or, for that matter, any particular part of the world.
The key figure behind many, if not most, of Iran’s strikes against American or Western targets — Qasem Soleimani, longtime leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force — is particularly adept at striking at U.S. forces and interests in a deniable manner. Soleimani knows that a direct confrontation with U.S. forces would not result in a positive outcome for Tehran. As one Middle Eastern leader recently told me, “Soleimani is nobody’s fool.”
It is not at all clear how much damage U.S. forces could do to a country four times the size of Iraq, with its military facilities dispersed and hardened. This is especially the case with respect to Iran’s nuclear facilities, to the extent that Western intelligence has identified them. Moreover, Iran is adept at sheltering its command-and-control systems; it advised Hezbollah in this regard during the 2006 war with Israel, much to the frustration of the Israeli Air Force.
In any event, for the United States to launch a major air strike against Iran’s forces and military facilities would require a massive military commitment that might mean a drawdown of resources from elsewhere in the world, notably the Western Pacific and possibly Europe as well. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin would be delighted if that were to happen.
Washington could launch a missile strike against some of Iran’s military facilities. Whether such a strike would demolish Tehran’s nuclear sites, or destroy all of Iran’s bases, is another matter. And, of course, Tehran would be sure to retaliate by indirection.
President Trump’s approach — which involves ever-tighter sanctions on the Iranian leadership, combined with reported cyber attacks and, most importantly, the strangulation of Iran’s finances — is actually the most effective way to retaliate for whatever outrages Tehran perpetrates. IRGC leaders themselves acknowledge that Iran is in an economic war with Washington that it knows it cannot win.
Trump should continue to press America’s advantage as the world’s financial hyperpower, until Iran’s ayatollahs realize that unless they are prepared to seek an accommodation with the West in general and America in particular, not only will they not win but they will also lose, and lose badly.