The killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in early January, along with Tehran’s notably limited retaliation, has given President Donald Trump reason to believe his strategy toward Iran is working. Widely condemned at first as a rash over-escalation, the Soleimani strike instead disrupted Iran’s expectations in a way that created both risks and opportunities.
Trump and his team deserve enormous credit for reversing Barack Obama’s tendency to focus exclusively on the danger of Iranian retaliation against the United States and its allies—an attitude that made the Obama administration reluctant to punish Iran for its misconduct in the region. That hesitation gave Iran wide latitude for troublemaking. Trump sent a different message. As General Kenneth F. McKenzie, the leader of U.S. Central Command, noted at an International Institute for Strategic Studies event last fall, “Iran has escalation options, but we own the top steps of the escalation ladder.”
Yet one swift change in momentum in the administration’s favor does not mean the president’s entire strategy is succeeding. In fact, it’s not working as well as Trump and his aides seem to think.
Soleimani’s allies and patrons are still in charge of Iran. Missiles continue to be fired at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, signaling a return to damaging—but deniable—behavior by Iran and its allies. Iran is still making appreciable progress toward nuclear weapons, and the time it would need to produce 25 kilograms of nuclear fuel has unquestionably shrunk since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal that Obama, the European Union, and other partners negotiated with Tehran.