The case for Iranian restraint

Iranian leaders and their militia allies must be contemplating these constraints. But they don’t show it.

A girl holds a sign reading “Trump is a murderer” during a condolence ceremony for Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a airstrike near Baghdad, outside the Embassy of Iran in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 7, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/LIM HUEY TENG)
A girl holds a sign reading “Trump is a murderer” during a condolence ceremony for Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a airstrike near Baghdad, outside the Embassy of Iran in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 7, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/LIM HUEY TENG)
The killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes last Friday may have shifted the psychological advantage in the protracted conflict between the United States and Iran, leading to more moderate and less brazen Iranian conduct.
This also implies that Iranian retaliation for the killings may be moderate or even symbolic, with a response that falls below the new US threshold of not tolerating attacks on American personnel and facilities.
The problem with the view that the killings escalated the US-Iranian conflict, such that we should expect a terrible reprisal, is that it assumes Iran has no limits on its ability and willingness to act and has no fear of consequences. This is not reasonable.
Consider the following:
• First, while Ayatollah Khamenei stated there would be a harsh response to the killings, he also said the response would have to be proportionate. What does this mean? On its face, it sounds like Iran will target an American military leader, or perhaps a high-profile allied leader, but this flies in the face of US resolve not to tolerate attacks on American personnel or facilities. To the extent that Iranian leaders believe the US threat, they must calculate that a serious retaliation risks yet another US response or worse.
• Second, Iran can’t afford a war with the US. Sanctions have not only imposed economic hardship, which has unsettled Iran’s population, but have also hammered away at Iran’s war potential. Iran’s economy would be hard-pressed to feed its war machine in the event of war with the US, absent significant Russian or Chinese military aide.
• Third, a war with the US could risk the end of the regime, as war worsens economic hardships and an angry population sees opportunity to advance against a regime preoccupied with an external enemy.
Iranian leaders and their militia allies must be contemplating these constraints. But they don’t show it.
After promising great punishment for the killings, deemed a turning point in the region, for example, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated on Sunday that the US took out Soleimani in order to have a psychological impact on his supporters and Iranian proxies.
HE WANTS to tell us that it didn’t work. Instead, he asserts the very opposite is true.
Nasrallah claimed the desire for martyrdom, apparently a goal of Soleimani, “flips the balance of power between us and the enemy.” He claimed they triumph when they are martyred.
This speech, given at a memorial service, was clearly designed to deny any shift in the psychological advantage in favor of the United States. Instead, we hear the preposterous assertion that killing them causes them to triumph. If so, then why are they complaining about the death of Soleimani?
The issue, then, is how Iranian leaders calculate present US policy and resolve in responding to Iranian or Iranian-inspired attacks. President Trump has indicated 52 identified targets vulnerable to attack if Iran retaliates for the killings.
Do Iranian leaders believe Trump? Do they believe that US leaders are willing to risk war with Iran?
If Iran believes the killing of Soleimani indicates a new policy where further attacks will be met with hard responses risking serious escalation, the likelihood is that Iran’s response will be moderated. This would put Iranian leaders in the very position that the United States has been in with Iran for a very long time – that is, a defensive position of not wanting to escalate conflict with the United States.
Past Iranian attacks and provocations in the Middle East and elsewhere have often been met with a muted US response. We have observed many extremely brazen Iranian attacks over the years, with no sign of fear or restraint in the enemy’s eyes. Iranian leaders, in turn, have long observed American hand-wringing and worrying about not escalating the conflict and not wanting war with Iran. US leaders have long been at a psychological disadvantage in the conflict and Iranian leaders have cunningly exploited this, with little fear of real cost to them.
A moderate-to-symbolic Iranian retaliation, one that causes no death or damage, may end the matter for now, as the US would not be moved to respond to that.
A more aggressive Iranian retaliation, however, could reflect Iranian brinkmanship as Iran tests the new US policy for its seriousness. A hard US response, as promised, would reinforce Iran’s understanding of this new reality.

The writer is a lawyer in Worcester, Massachusetts.