After Soleimani: Crisis, Opportunity, and the Future of the Gulf

Event Report

The U.S. strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 provided a punctuation mark with which to assess U.S. strategy in the Gulf. On February 24, the CSIS Middle East Program hosted a conference to analyze the state of U.S. strategy in the region, openings for regional diplomacy, and the future of great power competition in the Gulf. Experts also identified key considerations for policymakers in charting a path forward.

Participants offered a range of views, but they expressed broad consensus on several points:

  • The United States’ strategy in the Gulf (and toward Iran in particular) lacks coherence, and U.S. influence in the region has diminished over the past five years.

  • The United States is not fully exploiting its diplomatic potential in the Middle East.

  • Concern about great power competition in the Gulf is increasing, and that competition will undermine U.S. interests in the region if the United States fails to maintain a competitive advantage.

The United States’ Iran strategy

Several experts judged that, after the strike on General Soleimani, Iran now prefers de-escalation with the United States. According to International Crisis Group expert Ali Vaez, “The biggest debate in Iran is about how to change President Trump’s calculus, and what to do if he wins reelection in November.” Vaez predicted a “slow-down on the nuclear front,” as Iran seeks to avoid provoking U.S. or European military action. Gen. Joseph Votel said the strike and Iran’s consequent accidental downing of the Ukrainian jet have undermined the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and may lead to a reduction in its regional activities as it “exercises more introspection.” John McLaughlin echoed this assessment, saying that the “incompetence” of the accidental shootdown “appalled Iranians” and diminished the IRGC’s domestic prestige.

On the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, Christine Wormuth described a “misalignment between the ends, which are very maximalist, and the ways and means.” She urged U.S. policymakers to revisit the fundamentals of Iran policy in a “structured and deliberate set of discussions which think about second- and third-order effects.” Greater consistency in articulating U.S. priorities and interests would also enable the United States to deter Iran more credibly and would help avoid miscommunication and miscalculation, she added. General Votel agreed that clearly signaling red lines is an important element in both deterring Iran and avoiding miscalculation. Vaez argued that the United States will have to assess what level of Iranian influence in the region is tolerable because “Iran is part of the region” and is “of the region.”

Great power competition

In his keynote address, General Votel described the goal of great power competition as being “more about prevailing than it is about directly confronting” U.S. adversaries. In the new strategic context, he said, U.S. strategic goals should be “maintaining comparative advantage,” “being seen as a more highly desired partner,” “protecting essential and important assets,” “maintaining access and partnerships” in the region, and “providing decisionmakers with space and options” for policy.

Although General Votel said that Russia poses a “significant military threat” to the United States, he argued that China is a “more significant challenge.” China’s “long-term, centrally driven plan to dominate emerging technology, expand markets, and create military parity poses a direct challenge to the United States,” he said. Wormuth noted that although U.S. competition with China has a military aspect, it also has important economic and diplomatic components. McLaughlin echoed this assessment, saying that although “China’s soft power is not great,” it has the potential to develop its soft power capacity in the next 20 years.

Towards a better U.S. Gulf strategy

Several experts highlighted the importance of bolstering the United States’ diplomatic presence in the Middle East. McLaughlin described “diplomacy, soft power, and alliances” as “our force-multiplying formula for decades ahead” in the Middle East. Amb. Anne Patterson urged the U.S. administration to fully staff U.S. embassies in the Middle East and urged U.S. diplomats to take more risks. She argued, “When you ask somebody to come to your fortress embassy instead of going to their office, the signal is that you are afraid to engage with the local population, which makes the sense of U.S. withdrawal much more dramatic.”

Experts also discussed how the United States can restore its credibility in the Middle East. Wormuth observed that “there is a difference between being an honest broker and being the power player in the region.” She encouraged U.S. policymakers to look “dispassionately and more evenly” at the set of problems in the Middle East. Ambassador Patterson said the United States must do “everything possible to heal the rift among the GCC countries.” Amb. Douglas Silliman noted that the United States has an unparalleled ability to “pull together different regional and international powers” in pursuit of its goals, adding that it should give a “diplomatic push” to reconcile Arab Gulf states. Participants also advocated encouraging Saudi Arabia to bring the Yemen war to a close, presenting it as a positive opportunity for regional diplomacy.

The panelists also urged the United States to reassess its military presence in the Middle East. Wormuth proposed “working out how to transition to warm basing with stronger partners in the region.” General Votel said there is a “sustainable and affordable level of military presence” that the United States should maintain in the Middle East, and he suggested focusing more heavily on security cooperation with regional partners so that they can shoulder more of the security burden. He also said the United States should extricate itself from ongoing conflicts, highlighting opportunities to draw down force numbers in Iraq and Syria.

Experts suggested that even a more limited U.S. military presence in the Gulf would still be impactful. Ambassador Silliman argued that even if the U.S. comparative military and economic dominance diminishes, the United States will “not actually lose much influence or power unless we choose not to use it.” McLaughlin said it is hard to underestimate the effect of a U.S. presence, saying “just the presence of U.S. forces acts as a tripwire and makes a big difference.”

You can access the event page here.