Iran’s greatest asset in its ongoing struggle against the West has been its boldness and willingness to use military power. The US and its allies were clearly stronger, but reluctant to use overwhelming force. Until now.
The stunning assassination of defense chief Qasem Soleimani presents Western powers with a unique opportunity to transform the equation. Destroying Iran’s mythical deterrent power could ultimately force it to abandon its most ambitious and destructive aims.
Tehran’s deterrence posture was based on its readiness to make “crazy moves” while facing a more cautious and anxious West. Take the wrong step, and the Islamic Republic will unleash its fury and “open the gates of hell.” The Free World, of course, preferred to avoid such tactics or rhetoric.
And so, Western leaders opted for a more conciliatory strategy. European and US officials chose dialogue and diplomatic moves over war or military pressure. At most, they would introduce some economic sanctions and hope for the best.
This approach would make perfect sense if Iran adopted a similar outlook. It made little sense given Tehran’s actual policies. The ayatollahs eagerly exploited the West’s softness to advance the Islamic Republic’s strategic vision through military force.
Soleimani personified Iran’s belligerent strategy. Under his leadership, the regime formed, bankrolled and armed terror groups and militias across the Middle East. Whereas the West sought to avoid war, Iran readily promoted war to destabilize the Mideast in a bid to achieve regional hegemony.
However, by killing Soleimani, the US took a page out of the Iranian playbook. The American action was unpredictable, violent, and reckless. And this poses a huge problem for Iran’s leaders.
Will West Call Iran’s Bluff?
Playing the crazy card only works if the other side plays nice. It does not work if the other side adopts the same posture, and also happens to be the world’s greatest superpower.
Ironically, President Trump’s rashness and unorthodox style are perfectly suited for a game of Iranian poker. Consequently, the US and the West are now well positioned to call Iran’s bluff.
The Iranians can certainly respond to Soleimani’s assassination with some painful blows. But this would likely provoke severe US retaliation. After all, America’s capacity to devastate Iran is almost boundless, while Iran’s ability to hurt the US is limited.
Moreover, Iran faces numerous challenges at home and abroad. its economy is struggling, domestic unrest is growing, and people across the region are rising up against it. Suddenly, the Middle East’s worst aggressor is under attack. A boxing match with the US at this time could be disastrous.
Under the circumstances, sustained economic and military pressure on Iran could be hugely rewarding. Such policy, especially if adopted by a united Western front, would expose Iran for what it is: A medium-sized power with glaring vulnerabilities.
Will Western governments recognize this rare occasion and stand with the United States despite their distaste for President Trump? Early indications are not promising. In the end, America may carry this burden alone, with some help from Israel.