Jen Kirby. Foreign and National Security Reporter interviwed a former CIA intelligence analyst and expert on Middle East politics and military affairs. He has served on the National Security Council staff and has written several articles and books on international relations.
This conversation was orignally published on Vox.
Iran’s internal politics are not monolithic, and tensions exist between more moderate forces and hardliners within the Iranian regime. But Soleimani’s death may be shocking enough to overcome some divisions — which is why most experts think Iran will have no choice but to respond in some way.
To try to get a better sense of how Soleimani’s death is being received in Iran, I reached out to Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington and longtime Iran expert.
Pollack explained the importance of Soleimani as a figure in Iran, and what the potential fallout from his death could look like — with the caveat that it’s impossible to know exactly how Iran’s internal deliberations are playing out.
I guess a good place to start is Soleimani’s death. What would you guess was the immediate reaction or response within the Iranian regime to the news?
Shock and anger, which is exactly what we saw. Honestly, Jen, when I heard about this Thursday evening, my immediate thought was, “Ooh, Iranians are going to be pissed.”
This guy was arguably the second-most-powerful man in Iran. He was almost certainly the most powerful Iranian figure in their foreign policy. He was widely respected within the Iranian leadership.
He was also a rival of certain elements within Iran who hated him, but they nevertheless respected him. He is an Iranian major general. He is a very important Iranian government official. Even the Iranian leaders who hated him, who were his rivals, no doubt thought this was an absolutely outrageous act on the part of the United States to go and assassinate him.
Can you put in layman’s terms who Soleimani was in Iran? Was he a household name? How did he figure, if it all, in the popular imagination?
There really is no position in the US government that’s akin to the position Soleimani occupied in Iran. That’s why it gets hard. From my perspective — and I say this cautiously, because he’s a dear friend of mine — but I actually think the closest one to think about it is to say, what if the Iranians killed David Petraeus?
Petraeus was not just the central commander of US forces in Iraq, he’s also the former CIA director. But more than that, he’s an iconic figure. There are Americans who don’t like David Petraeus because he’s associated with the success of the surge in Iraq. Even still, if the Iranians killed David Petraeus, I think those critics would be like, “Well, that’s gone too far.”
That’s how I think about it: This is a figure who was seen as a very important Iranian government official and as being extremely successful for Iran in terms of its regional and foreign policy.
So much of the discussion has been focused on what Iran’s response will be. Is a retaliatory move on the part of Iran inevitable?
There’s nothing inevitable in Iran. The Iranians are capable of almost anything. There are any number of occasions we can point to in their history where they have threatened or promised to do something, and they didn’t do it. So nothing is inevitable.
That said, I think that you would have to be a fool to assume that the Iranians won’t do something. They have repeatedly said that they are going to do something. I think the likelihood is quite high that they will do something.
The much more interesting question is: What do they do? We’ve already seen some very interesting statements by the Iranians. We’ve seen repeated statements that they will retaliate. But we’ve also seen their very senior Iranian officials say things like, “We will retaliate against the American military.”
That’s really important. I see that as the Iranian regime trying to signal to the United States that they’re looking to keep this conflict confined. They don’t want an all-out war with the United States. They seem to believe that Trump doesn’t want an all-out war with Iran.
I think the Iranians are trying to say to Trump, “You have put us in a position where we have to retaliate. We can’t not retaliate for what you just did. But we’re going to try to focus our retaliation on an American military target in the hope that that is going to keep this conflict confined. We’re not going to hit civilians. We’re not going to hit something in the United States of America.”
But I guess the question then is what the US — and Trump’s — response will be to that.
The problem that I see is that what Trump is saying is the exact opposite of Iran. He’s saying, “I’m going to hit 52 different sites.” Some of these are cultural sites — which is a war crime. And so he’s saying to the Iranians, “I don’t care about international law. And I’m going to hurt you as much as I possibly can.”
Obviously, we don’t know what the conversations within the Iranian Supreme National Security Council look like, but there may well be hardline Iranian leaders who are saying to Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei: “Trump doesn’t understand deterrents, he doesn’t understand rationality. Why are you trying to keep this thing confined? That’s going to look like weakness to Trump. If you hit him back and you hit him in a weak fashion, he’s going to hit us much, much harder. That’s exactly what he’s saying. And therefore, the only thing that Trump is going to listen to is some really massive, really horrific Iranian response.”
That to me is the great danger. Now, again, I suspect, based on my experience with Khamenei, that Khamenei is nevertheless going to stick to that much more limited response in the first round. He will try to respond in a discrete, fairly limited fashion.
And by the way, it’s also worth noting that the Iranians are already claiming credit for the Iraqis voting to evict our troops and touting the decision to break the limits on enrichments of uranium in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. They’re already saying that that’s part of their retaliation.
It’s bad for the United States, don’t get me wrong. But I think that that also helps because that allows the Iranians to say, “We’re already retaliating,” and therefore any military retaliation can be more limited because they can say, “Well, hey, whatever we did in the military realm, we put that together with the Iraqis evicting the troops, or at least the vote to do so, and the uranium enrichment, and that together constitutes a big series of defeats for the Americans. That’s the retaliation for Soleimani’s death.”
Nevertheless, the big question in my mind is what happens with Trump after that?
Assuming that the Iranians do mount a more limited retaliation, a retaliation that is meant to prevent further escalation, what does Trump do? I’m very concerned about that because his rhetoric is absolutely over the top — and his actions. He [ordered the drone strike on Soleimani] in response to the Iranians killing an American contractor and busting up the gates to our embassy in Baghdad. What happens when the Iranians actually mount a serious attack of any kind against US military forces?
Has Trump boxed himself in with his rhetoric? Would he feel compelled to do something really huge that, again, puts the Iranians in the situation where those hardliners come in and say, “We told you this guy cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t make sense to try to limit the attacks that we make on the United States. The only thing that we can do with Trump is to try to hurt America so badly that he’ll back down.”
I think that will turn out to be wrong. But that’s what the problem is. That’s how we get ourselves into a really big war.
And I guess that’s why this situation is so dangerous. At the same time, I sometimes got the sense after Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 that Tehran tried to play up the contrast with Trump as a volatile actor — to basically try to claim that the US was the irresponsible world actor, not Iran. Given the general surprise about how this attack against Soleimani played out, is there a sense that Tehran is trying to win over support or sympathy internationally?
So as always I’m going to start with, I don’t know. Because we don’t know what’s actually being said.
As you point out, we know that the Iranians have cared about international opinion in the past, as recently as this summer. The initial set of attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf does seem to have been about changing international opinion toward Trump’s Iran policy. So they clearly do pay attention to that.
They clearly have wanted, at every step, to make the world believe that Trump is the one who is acting contrary to international stability. And they may still, I would not put that past them. I think if I had to guess, I would guess that it is part of their conversations.
But a very important “but”: I think that the killing of Soleimani takes the Iranians well past where they were over the summer, even in the fall. This is a big deal, and my sense is that they are now looking at this in a much more bilateral focus. They may still be thinking, “Well, maybe the Europeans can kind of restrain Trump.” They may also be thinking, “At some point, we may need the Russians and Chinese to step in and save our bacon, and it will be easier for them to do so if we’re the ones who look like we’re being the responsible party.”
“THE US JUST KILLED QASSEM SOLEIMANI. IT’S NOT JUST THAT WE KILLED SOMEONE IMPORTANT, IT’S THE ACT ITSELF. IT’S THE WILLINGNESS TO DO SOMETHING SO BIG TO IRAN.”
But, again, the US just killed Qassem Soleimani. It’s not just that we killed someone important, it’s the act itself. It’s the willingness to do something so big to Iran.
Iran has to be looking at this and saying, “We have a huge problem with the United States of America, and we need to deal with that problem. The rest of the world is out there, but we’re going to have to deal with this problem on our own.”
I think we’ve moved to a point where they are much more focused on what they need, what they’re able to do, what they think is going to move the United States in the right direction. I think that they’re thinking about other countries as mostly peripheral actors in this.
There’s often a lot of discussion about internal tensions within Iran, specifically between hardliners and more moderate forces. Does the killing of Soleimani make it more likely that the hardliners are ascendent? Or how do you see those dynamics playing out, as best you can guess?
My gut right now is that, so far, this has been advantageous for Iran’s hardliners. Because this reinforces their narrative that the United States, particularly Trump, is just a mad dog who can’t possibly be reasoned with, who should not be negotiated with.
The reservation I have is that — and this goes back to my point about how the Iranians seem to be looking at retaliation — I think the initial reaction we’ve heard from the Iranians is them suggesting that they feel the need to retaliate, but they’re trying to do it in a discrete, limited fashion in the hope that we will keep the conflict discrete and limited as well.
That’s not a reformist position. It’s arguably not a moderate position. But it’s a more moderate position than what I suspect I would hear from Iran’s hardest hardliners.
Just a month ago there were massive protests in Iran against the Iranian government. I wonder if, with all the caveats that apply, Soleimani’s death will temper some of that opposition and become a rallying point for the regime, even among those Iranians who may be skeptical of the government. Or is it more complicated than that?
It’s always more complicated than that. Let’s work our way backwards.
I think that Soleimani has become a rallying point. I think that there were a certain number of Iranians who may have been unhappy with the government but who nonetheless were proud of Iran’s international accomplishments. How angry were they about the government spending money on Syria? How happy were they that Iran was showing itself to be strong and able to act in the region? Very hard to know the answer to that.
Iranians have tended to be quite nationalistic, and whatever an Iranian might have thought about Qassem Soleimani on Wednesday, on Thursday my guess is that there were a lot of Iranians who felt like what the United States did was absolutely wrong and was an outrageous affront to Iran.
You could hate the government and still believe that it was outrageous for the United States to kill such an important Iranian official.
I wonder about the guy who’s replacing Soleimani: his deputy, Esmail Ghaani. What do we know about him as a leader?
We don’t know a whole lot about Esmail Ghaani. We don’t know a whole lot about him because he’s been Soleimani’s deputy for a long time. Soleimani left him in charge of the unimportant stuff. They had this division of labor, where Soleimani handled Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. And Ghaani handled the rest of it. Which — there’s a lot of other stuff. It’s just not really important. So that’s point number one.
Second, because he didn’t deal with Iraq and Syria and Yemen, he’s going to be behind the curve. He doesn’t have the same relationships that Soleimani had. He doesn’t have the same experience in those places. He may not know what deals Soleimani was cooking up or what Soleimani knew that other people didn’t. I mean, what Soleimani had just in his head was in some ways invaluable to Iran. It will take a long time for Ghaani to come up to speed.
And then, you have to look at Soleimani and say, “This was an exceptionally competent, capable guy.” The way he was able to manipulate Middle Eastern leaders, the strategies he pursued, how he’s kind of knitted together all of these different conflicts to work in tandem with each other. These are brilliant approaches. There’s nothing out there to suggest that Ghaani has the same level of brilliance.
Jen KirbyThat makes sense. What else should be watching for from the Iranians in the coming days to get a sense of how this conflict might escalate?
Whatever they say about retaliation is important. It’s important to continue to listen because it should continue to shed light on their thinking, especially as it evolves a) over time and b) in response to all of the things that Trump is saying.
And all that’s important because, as I said, I worry that what Trump is saying and tweeting is affecting Iran’s internal deliberations.