What does the killing of Iran’s Suleimani mean?

The Crown Center's Gary Samore, a veteran U.S. arms negotiator, weighs in

an image of U.S. and Iraqi flags painted on concrete with a large diagonal crack separating the two

On Friday morning, Jan. 3, the U.S. killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian commander, and several Iran-backed militia leaders, with a drone strike to their convoy at Baghdad International Airport. The strike capped a week of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, with pro-Iranian militia members in Iraq marching on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, burning an entry building and trapping the staff inside for more than 24 hours. It was all part of a deadly series of events that included American airstrikes that killed more than two dozen Iranian militia members in Iraq and Syria over the weekend, preceded by rocket attacks that killed a U.S. contractor, which the U.S. blamed on an Iranian-backed militia.

Gary Samore, Crown Family director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and professor of the practice of Politics, was a senior arms control negotiator in the administrations of Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton. Until 2013, he served as the "WMD czar" in the Obama administration. He had this to say about the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran:

Gary Samore, senior executive director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, with arms folded and looking over his right shoulder at the camera
Photo/Mike Lovett

Gary Samore

Does the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani bring the U.S. closer to outright war with Iran?

Yes. The risk is that Iran will retaliate in a way that provokes further U.S. military action against Iran. Such a conflict would primarily involve U.S. airstrikes against Iranian military facilities and forces. Iran might respond by launching its missiles against U.S. forces and allies in the region. U.S. and Iranian naval forces could also engage. However, neither Iran nor President Trump seem interested in a major military conflict, so it is possible that both sides will engage in a series of limited attacks and counterattacks without escalating to full-scale war. 

In any event, the U.S. does not have sufficient ground forces in the region to invade Iran, and Iran's ground forces are too weak to attack U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.     

The Pentagon has stated that the Suleimani was killed to deter future Iranian attacks. As powerful as Suleimani may have been, can we expect his death to have a near- or long-term deterrence on Iran’s ability to carry out strikes in the region? 

Unlikely. Although Suleimani was the leader of the Qods Force, his death does not significantly weaken the ability of Iran to carry out attacks through its various allies and proxies in the region. U.S. forces in Iraq are especially vulnerable. Iran will almost certainly retaliate against the U.S. for the killing of Suleimani, but Tehran will carefully choose the targets, timing and method of attack, in part to reduce the risk of U.S. retaliation. In the meantime, Tehran will use the Suleimani assassination to divert attention away from public protests in Iraq and Lebanon against Iranian influence and increase pressure on the Iraqi government to expel U.S. forces.  If this effort is successful, Iran will consolidate its dominant position in Iraq, which began with the U.S. invasion in 2003.   

What implications does this action have for Iran’s nuclear program?

Uncertain. Iran has already begun to exceed some of the limits of the 2015 nuclear agreement in response to President Trump's decision to withdraw from the agreement. However, the European parties to the agreement have warned Iran that they will re-impose international sanctions if Iran takes any further steps away from the agreement. The killing of Suleimani could strengthen the argument of those in Iran who favor complete withdrawal from the nuclear deal and buildup of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Others, however, will argue that Iran should continue to comply with the main elements of the nuclear agreement in order to focus international concern (including in Europe) on the U.S. for assassinating Suleimani.  It is unclear how this debate will be resolved inside Iran. 

Categories: International Affairs, Research

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