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After Soleimani: We Need to Talk About Deterrence in Europe

The leading Twitter hashtags on 3 January – the day Qasem Soleimani was killed by an American drone strike in broad daylight in front of Baghdad Airport – were #WorldWarIII and #FranzFerdinand – the latter not referring to the Scottish indie band, but to the murder of Austria’s heir presumptive that triggered World War I. Alas, 2020 is not 1914, Baghdad isn’t Sarajevo, and the one thing we can safely predict is that World War III is not about to break out. Which doesn’t mean everything is ok and we can safely go back to de-hibernation in rainy Brussels. And the disaster of the downed Ukrainian passenger plane demonstrates that there is no such thing as a conflict without tragic losses. But it means that Europe’s hyperventilation, even if shared by many US liberals in the solidly partisan biotope of Washington, should give way to a healthy dose of sobriety. I propose to take it in five steps.

1. The big Middle Eastern War is not imminent

If the price of crude oil, as a reaction to Soleimani’s killing – jumps up a mere 3 %, as it did last Friday, you know that Armageddon will have to wait, no matter what the Twittersphere says. That doesn’t mean the crisis is over. But the very measured missile strike without casualties against US bases in Iraq on 8 January, the tweets by Iranian leaders that they don’t want further escalation and also Trump’s non-escalatory statement after the missile strikes all speak for lowering tensions for the moment. In fact, while both sides of the conflict have no interest in letting this grow into a full-blown war, it’s the Iranian regime whose very existence is at stake in case the US and/or Israel take out the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) structure – of which they are very well capable. While full-blown war might jeopardise Trump’s re-election, in Iran it would put the whole system into question and likely end mullah rule.

2. Soleimani’s killing has re-established deterrence against Iran

Taking out the mastermind behind Iran’s export of terror in the Middle East and beyond, the engineer of the slaughter in Aleppo and elsewhere who is also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US soldiers, may well go down in history as a textbook example of escalating to de-escalate. This, nota bene, after a couple of Iranian attacks that remained essentially unanswered by the US. The bombing of tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in spring 2019, the shooting down of a state-of-the-art US drone in June and the missile attacks against Saudi refineries in September come to mind. And remember, it was a good part of the American and European security community that began to worry that Trump is being too soft on Iran, especially after he called back planes and drones already in the air after the drone incident.

Apparently, this week the Iranian military before the strike called up the Iraqi authorities, who then warned the US soldiers so they could get into shelters. Iranian leaders are tweeting very clearly that they want to avoid further escalation. Iraqi Shia leaders have issued calls to their faithful not to attack US troops for the moment. All these are signs that, for the first time in almost a year of direct aggression against the US, Iran is indeed standing down. Soleimani’s killing caused this.

3. The killing has not weakened Iranian moderates

First of all, don’t be deceived by Iranian TV pictures of millions of mourners in the streets of Iranian cities. Soleimani may have been a popular figure with some Iranians; but being the second most powerful leader and his IRGC the decisive pillar of the regime, he was certainly reviled by all dissenters – whose numbers have been growing, if anything, recently. Naturally, the regime spent all the carrots and sticks at the disposal of an authoritarian system to make people attend the rallies. And secondly, Iran’s moderate reaction this Wednesday can very well be read as a sign that the radicals, especially in the IRGC itself, are not calling the shots anymore, contrary to recent years.

4. US forces are not being kicked out of Iraq

That may still happen, and it would be detrimental to Iraqi democracy and especially the fight against ISIS, but Iraq’s non-binding parliamentary resolution of last weekend will not lead to an immediate withdrawal of US troops. Anti-ISIS operations have been halted; some US allies are withdrawing troops from Iraq, but this may very well not be the last word. It’s definitely too early to predict the end of the US presence in Iraq.

5. It is Europe’s sacred mission to bring both sides back to reason – NOT!

Non-European observers may be forgiven for thinking that Europe’s habitual calls on both sides to exercise utmost restraint, and defer from further escalation, have all the quaintness – and the effectiveness – of a Pottawatomi rain dance. Which doesn’t mean that de-escalation doesn’t happen (see above) but it certainly isn’t the result of Europe’s well-meant efforts to ‘bring both sides back to reason’, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it.

Fortunately, the heads of government of the UK, France and Germany were slightly more sober, putting the blame squarely on the Iranian side and Soleimani personally before repeating the standard memes of EU Iran policy. Europe’s problem with this crisis, as generally with the Middle East, is twofold: First, the EU and its members don’t have the wherewithal to take on any serious diplomatic role because, without the necessary military resources (not only troops but also transport, intelligence and command & control), they cannot alone become a security provider which is essential in the region. And second, some important European actors (Germany, for example) have a huge problem with the very idea of deterrence. Deterrence meaning the ability and the willingness to escalate, in a precise and limited and targeted manner in specific situations, as it happened last Friday. As long as this is so, we can call for utmost restraint or try to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) until we’re blue in the face.

Again: All this doesn’t mean that we’re heading for a peaceful future in the Middle East, or that the Soleimani killing was a brilliant, well-planned chess move by a stable genius in the White House. But it means that we Europeans have to rethink some time-honoured principles about security. Remaining pure vegetarians, we won’t survive in a jungle of carnivores.