On the third day of 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. Few in Tokyo seemed to care about his assassination as the nation celebrated the first New Year’s holiday in the new era of Reiwa.
Initial reaction of the Tokyo-based media was low-toned at best. As of Monday, only one editorial had been written about the U.S. attack in major Japanese newspapers. Instead, stories about former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who is believed to have fled Japan on Dec. 29 using a French passport that he was required to carry around in Japan, dominated the media’s attention.
I never forget the moment of surprise and anxiety upon watching CNN’s rather sensational breaking news on a drone attack against the Quds Force commander in Baghdad. As a former Arabic language officer who had been stationed twice in Iraq, I knew exactly how minacious Soleimani’s death could be for the region.
Never-Trump pundits tend to consider the attack an imprudent game-changer that would open a whole new chapter in the 40-year U.S.-Iran dispute and even escalate it to the level of direct military confrontation. Did U.S. President Donald Trump really know what Soleimani’s death meant? Iran naturally vowed a “harsh revenge.”
They should relax. The two nations might have miscalculated each other. Washington mistakenly believed that Iran, without Soleimani, would refrain from provoking the United States. In contrast, Tehran must have imagined that Iran’s recent provocations would not, as was the case in the past, invite severe American military retaliation. Unfortunately, both were wrong.
Although a U.S.-Iran game of chicken is always a possibility, Washington and Tehran, even with all their misjudgments so far, are still determined to continue playing the political game they have been carefully engaging in for at least the past 40 years. For the following reasons, therefore, Tokyo, should not panic no matter what happens in the Middle East.
A new war against Iran?
Hardly. The U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been competing, in one way or another, in a confrontation without direct military exchanges since the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. Since the 2003 Iraq War in particular the two nations have fought proxy wars not only in Iraq and Syria but also in Yemen and elsewhere.
Trump stated in Florida that the attack was “to stop a war” and not “to start a war” against Iran. Trump is wrong in the sense that Soleimani’s assassination has escalated the conflict between the U.S. and Iran from the level of proxy war to that of direct military engagement.
In this sense, anti-Trump pundits in Washington misinterpret the situation. The two nations are already in war and no matter who leads the Quds Force, military fundamentals on the battle ground will not change. That is why the two warring parties have so far shown a minimal level of self-restraint toward one another.
Will Soleimani’s death change the game?
Hardly. Soleimani was an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He commanded the Quds Force, which specializes in extraterritorial clandestine operations. Soleimani, a superb strategic thinker and military organizer, was succeeded by his deputy Esmail Ghaani.
Without its charismatic commander, the Quds Force’s military might will naturally be degraded. Ghaani, previously responsible for financial disbursements, may not be as effective as Soleimani. Still, Soleimani’s legacy will linger for a while and nobody should underestimate the power of the Quds Force.
Was the attack legal and well-planned?
This remains to be seen. The Trump administration tried to justify the attack with the narrative of an “imminent threat” to the U.S. forces and civilians. But if it was imminent, why didn’t Trump convene an emergency National Security Council meeting and inform Americans in the region of the imminent danger they may face?
To me, the narrative of imminent threat sounded like another example of hindsight. Previous U.S. administrations had considered assassinating Soleimani before, but they all wisely decided against it because it would only make matters worse.
Reportedly the attack was a target of opportunity. If so, wasn’t Trump’s decision once again based on intuition, coincidence or miscalculation? The president, on vacation in Florida with no hint of self-restraint, made this critically important military decision without consulting with congressional leaders. Sigh.
Can or will Iran really retaliate?
Washington seems to be divided. Although Tehran declared it would “harshly retaliate,” Iran is not a worthy adversary in terms of conventional warfare. If I were Iran’s supreme leader, I would try to avenge Soleimani’s death in the field of cyber or other unconventional or asymmetrical warfare.
Iran must fight and win a political war against America with the goal of undermining and, if possible, eliminating America’s military presence and political influence in the region. I would also try to use Soleimani’s death to reunite the sanction-damaged Islamic Republic. All politics is local.
What does this mean for Japan?
Even if the U.S. and Iran both try to fight a political war, the recent escalation of events and repeated miscalculations could lead to a large-scale military war in the Middle East, the source of 90 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports. This may oblige Tokyo to reconsider some of its foreign policy options vis-a-vis the Middle East.
A real war against Iran, if it happens, might have an impact on North Korea, which is another headache for Tokyo. Would a U.S. massive military campaign against Iran make North Korean leader Kim Jong Un think twice or embolden him to further challenge Washington in a U.S. presidential election year? There is no crystal ball to predict the future, but one thing is sure. 2020 will most likely remind the politicians and citizens of Japan that the rules of the global games are changing and Tokyo must face this reality.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.