The first week of 2020 has seen a sharp escalation in U.S.-Iran tensions, with the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Iranian missile strikes on U.S. military targets in Iraq, and public threats from leaders in Washington and Tehran. As the potential for miscalculation and further escalation on both sides remains, where do the U.S. and Iran go from here?
Experts from across the Center's research programs have assessed these developments in real-time. The advisories below explore possible paths forward for the relationship between the United States and Iran.
January 8: Iran Fires Missiles at U.S. Targets; Trump Addresses Nation
On January 7, Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two U.S. military targets inside Iraq. Although no casualties were inflicted, the attack was a significant retaliation following the United States’ killing of Qassem Soleimani. In response to last night's strikes, President Trump addressed the country minutes ago to outline his administration's strategy moving forward. CNAS experts unpacked the key implications and possible outcomes to watch for.
- Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "Iran’s Supreme Leader does not seek an all-out war with the United States, and President Trump does not want a new war in the Middle East. This reality, combined with the pause following last night Iranian missile attack, opens up possibilities for de-escalation. In his remarks to the nation, it appears that the President will await signals of further intent before mounting any response. That's a welcome sign. It's tempting to hope that both sides can now declare victory and go home. Yet it's unlikely that we’ve now seen the full measure of Iran's retaliation for the Soleimani killing. Tehran has a history of carrying out terrorist attacks and assassination attempts, sometimes years after the precipitating event. Add to this the president's announcement of new sanctions against Iran and Tehran's announcement to abandon its commitments under the nuclear deal. The most acute phase may have passed, but the crisis goes on."
- Ilan Goldenberg, Director for Middle East Security: "Tehran needed to do something quickly and symbolically given how public the killing of Soleimani was. But Tehran didn’t want to trigger an all-out war. This Iranian attack is bold. It’s major. It’s significant. But it stops short of killing a large number of Americans. The reality is that Iran has found a way to, at least for the moment, respond relatively proportionally. Iran will look to do other things over time, just maybe not as public. The U.S. should still be worried about things like cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, targeting American embassies, and assassination attempts on American officials. Those things are entirely on the table for potentially years in retaliation. So we’re not at war. Are we a step closer? Maybe. But we may even be a step farther away because if this was the extent of Iran’s, at least its initial, public retaliation — it could have been worse. If it’s the beginning of more public retaliation, that’s different."
- Elizabeth Rosenberg, Director for Energy, Economics, and Security: "Skittish market traders pushed the oil price up and the stock market down on news of the Iranian attack on Iraqi bases housing American troops. This is likely to be the new economic normal as the United States and Iran trade direct hostilities. It will chill investment and undermine economic growth in the region, particularly in Iraq. Policy leaders and observers are closely watching the U.S. and Iranian trading of military hostilities, but we should not forget a trading of barbs in the economic and cyber realms which may be both symbolic and damaging. The United States is sure to issue further economic sanctions on Iran and its international business partners, including Chinese firms. Iran has a powerful offensive cyber capability which it has used against U.S. financial targets in the past, and may use again."
- Loren DeJonge Schulman, Deputy Director of Studies: "American military strength relies on a foundation of internal and external checks and balances. Having wholly ignored those in deciding to target Soleimani last week, pursuing careful evaluation of any response to Iran’s strike and consulting with allies and partners on potential consequences is triply necessary. Trump's calmer statement today is welcome but we are still in an escalatory situation with Iran with real risk, with attendant repercussions for our presence in the region. Congress and the American people aren’t optional participants either managing this crisis. Democratic accountability in use of force is not a nice-to-have; it bolsters the strength of our actions—or restraint."
- Kayla M. Williams, Director for Military, Veterans, and Society: "When I served in Iraq, indirect fire was common at many of the larger bases. The choice to primarily target Al Asad (which is large and contains significant empty space) may indicate that this was largely symbolic. I urge patient and measured U.S. reaction, rather than further escalation. Veterans, particularly those who deployed to Iraq, may be experiencing a complex array of emotions as during this news cycle. It's dredging up my memories of time spent at Al Asad, and of the chow hall I ate at every day for months in Mosul, which was hit less than a year after my unit left, killing two dozen. Any who are struggling should reach out—mental health care isn't 'one-and-done.'"
- Neil Bhatiya, Associate Fellow for Energy, Economics, and Security: "Much remains unknown about whether Tehran plans to follow-up last night's attack with further military action. President Trump's speech, however, seems to suggest a willingness from the United States to step back from further escalation. As events of the past week underscore how dangerous this situation can become when both sides lack an understanding of what the other ultimately wants, the Trump administration should take seriously initial Iranian statements about wanting to re-engage diplomatically. It is incumbent on the administration to identify a realistic diplomatic path, rather than reiterating the same maximalist demands that Iran has consider a poor foundation for negotiations."
- Kaleigh Thomas, Research Associate for Middle East Security: "The intentionally well-calibrated attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq was not an effort to escalate conflict with the United States, but delivered an immediate, highly visible response to the killing of Soleimani. In this moment, the U.S. administration has appropriately decided to exercise restraint while planning for the coming weeks and months which will likely see additional moves from Iran to inflict pain on the United States and its partners. Even if this most recent round of kinetic action begins to quiet, these events have lifted tensions between Iran and the United States to a new level and have severely undercut any chance of diplomatic resolution under President Trump or even a new administration."
January 2: U.S. Airstrike Kills Iranian General Qassem Soleimani
In a significant escalation of tensions with Iran, the United States has killed Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile commander of Iran's Quds Force. Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a prominent leader of the Popular Mobilization Units and a close adviser to Soleimani. The airstrike came after two days of rioting and an attempted breach of the walls at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; it is likely to prompt retaliation from Iran. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpacked the key implications and possible outcomes for observers to watch for.
- Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer, wrote in The Boston Globe: "Soleimani was the most popular regime figure in Iran and arguably the country’s second-most powerful man. Tehran will use his death as a much-needed rallying cry for its divided population, and the Supreme Leader has already issued calls for vengeance. The regime will wish to show its people and the world that it can fight back."
- Ilan Goldenberg, Director for Middle East Security, wrote in Foreign Affairs: "The events of the past few days demonstrate that the risk of miscalculation is incredibly high. Soleimani clearly didn’t believe that the United States was going to dramatically escalate or he wouldn’t have left himself so vulnerable, only a stone’s throw away from U.S. military forces in Iraq."
- Elizabeth Rosenberg, Director for Energy, Economics, and Security: "The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of punishing sanctions had a crippling effect on Iran's economy and set in motion a reckless tit-for-tat between Iran and the United States that now threatens escalation into all-out conflict. Tehran's reprisal, whenever it occurs, may threaten global oil supplies, including in the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 20% of global oil supplies pass daily. Oil prices have already spiked on this threat in early trading today. The market is still sensitive to the constraint on supply from the Iranian attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in September. This latest incident increases the odds that Iran will step significantly further away from its commitments in the JCPOA nuclear deal, effectively ending the agreement and forcing the other signatories to choose sides between the United States and Iran. Though the European signatories are close security partners of the U.S., they will resist getting drawn into hostilities with Iran that America appears to be courting. This reality underscores just how isolated the United States is in its current posture."
- Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Director for Transatlantic Security: "Although Russia-Iran relations have substantially deepened over the last decade, Russia will seek to avoid direct confrontation with the United States. Instead, Russia will coordinate with Iran where possible to advance their shared interest in countering perceived U.S. hegemony. In particular, Moscow will seek to use escalating tensions to discredit the United States by portraying Washington as an irresponsible global actor that precipitates instability.
Russian statements so far have focused on pushing back against what it views as U.S. unilateralism—highlighting its view that the United States consistently pursues its own interests without going through the UN Security Council. Russia, however, prides itself as being the only country that can work with all countries in the Middle East and will therefore need to manage perceptions that Russia is firmly aligned with Iran, including with Saudi Arabia given the significant increase in Russia-Saudi economic ties in recent years."
- Kaleigh Thomas, Research Associate for Middle East Security: "Iran will respond to the U.S. strike that killed the leader of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. Whether the situation escalates to war depends not only on how Iran retaliates in the immediate term, but, as importantly, how the United States in turn responds to that retaliation. Soleimani’s killing assures no diplomatic resolution will be reached between Iran and the United States in the short-term. The best-case scenario is for the resulting escalation to be managed as part of a cogent U.S. Iran strategy and through close cooperation with regional partners. Large-scale conflict with Iran would be costly for the United States—not only in financial resources, military assets, and human capital—but also in attention taken away from other national security priorities. These costs would likely endure in the long term given Iran’s strength in asymmetric capabilities and widespread reach in the region. Even in the aftermath of a direct confrontation, the United States would be forced into long-term deployments of a large number of air and naval assets that would need to remain in the Middle East for years to continue to deter and confront Iran at the cost of billions of dollars."