Hostilities With Iran Began in ’79

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Political News Opinion and Analysis

By establishing a credible deterrent, the killing of Soleimani should restrain Tehran’s aggression.

By Eric S. Edelman and Franklin C. Miller

Wall Street Journal, Jan. 9, 2020

The American media and political class worry that the U.S. is on the verge of war with Iran. It isn’t. The war has been under way for 40 years. 

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Largely using surrogates or proxy forces, Iran has killed hundreds of Americans by shooting down civilian planes, bombing U.S. embassies and military barracks, and supplying munitions for attacks on American soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere. 

With the exception of a brief naval engagement in April 1988, the U.S. responded to Iranian aggression by attacking surrogates rather than dealing with the source of the problem.

Now, with the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Washington has sent Tehran an unambiguous message that it can no longer attack Americans with impunity. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the U.S. has taken important initial steps to establish a credible deterrent.

Deterrence is effective when an enemy is convinced that the cost of an action will outweigh the gains.

Until now the Iranian leadership has suffered no losses to its own valued assets as a result of killing Americans. Soleimani’s habit of taunting U.S. officials during his travels around the region was testimony to his belief that he could act against the U.S. without consequences. The ayatollahs had evidently concluded they had a free hand to harass American troops.

Soleimani’s death is the first time the regime has lost something it valued in its conflict with the U.S. The Trump administration was right to make clear that America will impose significant costs on the regime until its state-sponsored hostage-taking, murder and other forms of terrorism cease. 

There’s no need to threaten a ground war, or to respond rashly to Iran’s Tuesday attacks on U.S. military facilities in Iraq, which did minimal damage. The U.S. has the military capacity to inflict severe damage on Iran without an invasion.

Some say that attacks like the Soleimani strike will encourage Iran to hit soft targets in the American homeland. But that risk already exists. And if Tehran still believed Washington would respond to a deadly terrorist attack on American soil only with strikes against peripheral targets, then the risk of such an attack would probably increase.

The sole previous direct American response against Iranian state assets—the 1988 naval rout, in which the U.S. sank two Iranian ships and destroyed a Persian Gulf oil platform being used to harass Western shipping—caused Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to agree to a cessation of hostilities. 

Deterrence works, but only if the threats are credible.

Soleimani was a state actor, carrying out a national policy of terrorism to murder Americans. U.S. recognition that it has been and remains engaged in a war with Iran and its proxies is long overdue.

The Trump administration’s goal should be to make sure the regime and its surrogates understand that nothing good can come from attacking Americans, American facilities or our allies.

Mr. Edelman was undersecretary of defense for policy, 2005-09, and is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 

Mr. Miller served as special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council staff, 2001-05, and is a principal of the Scowcroft Group.

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