In reality, the alarmism was never warranted. The circumstances around Soleimani’s killing exposed not just Iran’s many vulnerabilities and limited options for escalation against the U.S. but also serious myths that shape much of the American perception of the Iranian regime. Specifically, the idea that Iran can inflict damage on the U.S. is an outdated view about the situation in the region.
In 2020, unlike the early years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. has little footprint in conflict zones such Iraq and Syria. Iran, on the other hand, has invested heavily in keeping its allies in power, almost all of them now under domestic pressure. In other words, in a reverse of the Iraq War dynamics, the U.S. can mess with Iran in many more ways than Iran can retaliate. That is a new reality to which pundits and policymakers in the U.S. still need to catch up. The policy shift toward Iran under the Trump administration — to increase military, political, and economic pressure to weaken its regional hegemony — is exposing such vulnerabilities and demonstrating that the U.S. can deter Iran with minimal costs.
The apocalyptic commentary we witnessed this month has become the default response to provocations from Iran or its allies. Consider, for example, the reactions when President Obama announced he would launch punitive strikes against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons in 2013. The case in favor of strikes could not have been more compelling: Damascus violated an explicit red line that Obama declared against an internationally forbidden weapon — “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”