ill Tehran and Washington let slip the dogs of war following last week’s aerial takedown of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s IRGC) Quds Force? You could be forgiven for thinking so considering the hot takes that greeted the news of the drone strike outside Baghdad. For example, one prominent commentator, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass, opined that the Middle East “region (and possibly the world) will be the battlefield.”
Color me skeptical. The apocalypse is not at hand.
Haass is right in the limited sense that irregular military operations now span the globe. Terrorists thirst to strike at far as well as near enemies in hopes of degrading their will to fight. They respect no national boundaries and never have. Frontiers are likewise murky in the cyber realm, to name another battleground with no defined battlefronts. The United States and Iran have waged cyber combat for a decade or more, dating to the Stuxnet worm attack on the Iranian nuclear complex in 2010.
The coming weeks and months may see irregular warfare prosecuted with newfound vigor through such familiar unconventional warmaking methods. It’s doubtful Tehran would launch into conventional operations, stepping onto ground it knows America dominates. To launch full-scale military reprisals would justify full-scale U.S. military reprisals that, in all likelihood, would outstrip Iran’s in firepower and ferocity. The ayatollahs who oversee the Islamic Republic fret about coming up on the losing end of such a clash. As well they might, considering hard experience.
So the outlook is for more of the same. That’s a far cry from the more fevered prophecies of World War III aired since Soleimani went to his reward. To fathom Tehran’s dilemma, let’s ask a fellow who knew a thing or two about Persian ambitions. (The pre-Islamic Persian Empire, which bestrode the Middle East and menaced Europe, remains the lodestone of geopolitical success—even for Islamic Iran.)