In the United States, early analyses of the Trump Administration’s assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, tended to come with corresponding analyses of Iran’s array of choices for armed retaliation—attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, Saudi oil assets, Iraqi political targets, Israel, various diplomatic missions—suggesting that such a response is inevitable, and wondering, ominously, where it will come. By inference, the rationale for Donald Trump’s bolt-from-the-blue action will be justified, or not, by its consequences and their consequences. As General David Petraeus told Foreign Policy, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of this particular action. . . . Suleimani was the architect and operational commander of the Iranian effort to solidify control of the so-called Shia crescent, stretching from Iran to Iraq through Syria into southern Lebanon.” He added, “Now the question is: How does Iran respond with its own forces and its proxies, and then what does that lead the U.S. to do?”
Petraeus’s apprehension was unlikely to have been allayed by the Trump Administration’s alleged contingency plans for an Iranian counterattack. After Suleimani’s death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, reportedly instructed his National Security Council that Iran’s response should not be carried out by proxies but, rather, by Iranian forces in a direct, proportional attack on American interests. If that were to happen, Trump tweeted, his Administration had plans to attack fifty-two Iranian targets—a number that recalls the fifty-two American hostages held in Tehran in 1979. Early on Wednesday morning, a first Iranian salvo came: units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. There were no reported casualties, and the damage was apparently minimal. Later on Wednesday morning, in a brief address from the White House, Trump said—some would say gloated—that Iran “appears to be standing down.” After misrepresenting the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, he called on nato—an organization he has frequently scorned—to take a role and reiterated threats and sanctions against Iran but said that he was ready “to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Whatever Trump does, or does not do, in response, looking one military move ahead does not amount to a strategic plan. And the danger of escalation looms in a region that is, whatever America’s advantage in the airspace, Iranian turf. A missile barrage is the least of Iran’s strategic options. After the killing of Suleimani, which was achieved by a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, the Iraqi parliament called for American troops to leave that country, which has a Shiite majority and is home to militias subject to Iranian influence. Trump threatened economic sanctions on Iraq, but this has mainly compromised Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who presides over cities—recently wracked by demonstrations—that are desperate for foreign investment. It has not, apparently, mitigated uncertainty regarding the fate of America’s Iraqi bases, which calls the continuing fight against isisinto question, let alone the meagre results of America’s terrible war there. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime owes its survival to Iran, and Lebanon remains dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that suicide bombers across the region will leave the Americans “humiliated, defeated, and terrified.”
But this is Israel’s turf, too, and the killing of Suleimani feels quite different in Israel than it does in the United States—a somewhat more decisive, if not exactly recommended, move in a game that has been playing out in the region for years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reportedly apprised of the U.S. strike in advance by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said that Trump was “worthy of full appreciation”—though he subsequently tried to distance Israel from the killing, calling it “an American event.” Benny Gantz, the opposition leader trying to displace Netanyahu, called the attack a “brave decision.” No major party leader has publicly condemned the killing. On Sunday, Alex Fishman, the security correspondent for the Tel Aviv–based newspaper Yediot Ahronot, wrote, “For years, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to harness the United States for a military confrontation with Iran. And last Friday we emerged from these 40 years in the wilderness.”
Fishman puts things brazenly, but he captured the general mood among Israeli security experts, who take it for granted that they must fight a war of attrition with Iran and its proxies—Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. They also assume that, despite Israel’s own “second strike” nuclear capabilities, Iran’s heft—a technologically advanced country of eighty-three million people, with a military industry larger than Israel’s—its nuclear program, and its development of guided missiles constitute an outsized, if not existential, threat. Since October, when Trump seemed willing to abandon the Kurds fighting in northern Syria, Israeli security experts have feared that their American patron was showing signs of withdrawing from the region. Their ultimate fear was that he would leave Israel to face Iran alone.
But something else is at play here. The assassination of Suleimani seems of a piece with Israeli conceptions of “deterrence”—the manifest demonstration of overwhelming force kept in reserve—in which the killing of leaders is an arrow in the quiver. When Amos Yadlin, the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies—he previously served as the chief of military intelligence and as a deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force—was interviewed about the assassination on the Ynet news site, he immediately drew a parallel to the assassination of Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander, in a joint Mossad-C.I.A. operation in 2008. As Hezbollah and Iranian leaders did then, Yadlin said, Iranian leaders would now respond in a measured way. Virtually all defense experts presume a kind of division of labor in the regional contest, with the U.S. deterring Iran’s missile and nuclear programs and Israel countering the missile capabilities of its proxies. The Iranians “really, really don’t want a war with the world’s greatest power,” Yadlin said. Any “broad-based attack,” such as the one that Iranian leaders threatened over the weekend against thirty-two sites, including Tel Aviv, would “bring down on them America’s great might, including B-1 bombers, B-2s, cruise missiles—everything the U.S. has.”