By Rajesh Rajagopalan
There were significant worries that the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, would lead to escalation of war between Iran and the US. Those fears are now receding, though there are residual but probably unjustified fears that Iran could retaliate at a later point. But, while the relief about avoiding another major war in the region is understandable, there are also longer-term consequences that the episode reveals that need to be explored. In particular, we need to understand why the expectation that the killing of Soleimani would lead to escalation, as feared by many politicians and analysts in the US, was mistaken and what it says about deterrence in asymmetric dyads. This has implications for the India-Pakistan dyad too, though Indian analysts have been far more mindful about the implication of the power imbalance between Iran and the US.
Probably, the most important point to note is that the Soleimani attack challenges the notion that stronger states should not escalate in response to asymmetric terror attacks because doing so risks an expensive war. This was the assumption behind a lot of opposition to the strike in the US. Similar fear about the cost and doubts about effectiveness also limited Indian options after the Mumbai terror attack, according to former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. The consequences of both the Soleimani hit and India’s retaliatory attacks on Pakistan – the surgical strike (2016) and the Balakot attack (2019) – suggests that this widespread conventional wisdom is mistaken.
The reason is not hard to find. Stronger states are likely to have greater capacity to escalate. Understandably, even relatively strong states will find it difficult to escalate against unaffiliated terror groups that have millenarian objectives. But it is easier to respond to serious asymmetric attacks from state-supported terror groups; because the state that is sponsoring such attacks, in this case Iran, can be targeted and punished with military retaliation. Asymmetric attacks do provide its state some protection because it can deny responsibility for the actions of its client terror groups. But such deniability will work only as long as the attacks remain at such a low level that the stronger power does not deem escalation to be worth the cost. If it crosses certain thresholds of violence, the stronger state will be able to justifiably respond to it. Iran crossed that threshold when it escalated by having its proxies attack the US embassy in Baghdad. Similarly, Pakistan miscalculated when it launched an attack on a troop convoy in Pulwama that resulted in significant Indian casualties. Indeed, India would have been justified if it had launched punitive military retaliation for the Mumbai terror attacks.
The disparity of power means that the stronger power can decide how to shape its retaliation, which could be either symbolic or cause serious damage. Stronger states can retaliate with symbolic attacks to display the disparity in power. The Balakot strike is an example because its primary intent was to demonstrate that India had the political gumption to attack targets even inside Pakistan rather than blowing up a building or killing some terrorists. Tangentially, this is also why the debate about whether Indian bombers hit their targets or whether an F-16 was shot down are so irrelevant and tedious. Alternatively, the purpose of such attacks could be to cause real damage: killing Soleimani would definitely hurt Iran because he was such an important asset to Iran.
There are, of course, limitations that should also be noted. India cannot conduct a Balakot strike every time a terrorist lobs a grenade in downtown Srinagar, a problem that the US also faces vis-a-vis Iran. The cost-benefit equation may be different when it comes to responding to small-scale attacks. On the other hand, this also limits the effectiveness of using asymmetric attacks as a strategy against stronger powers: such powers may be irritated by pin-prick attacks, but they may also have the capacity to bear them for a very long time. For example, India is unlikely to negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir if all that Pakistan can do is have its terrorist clients lob the occasional grenade.
Importantly, the disparity in power also means that the weaker side cannot escalate in retaliation to an attack. This side of the calculus is usually ignored by opponents of escalation: escalation can become very expensive very quickly for the weaker side. The weaker side will always pay much more in any escalatory spiral and the disproportionate costs will mount with each step up the ladder. There may be rare cases where the stakes may be high enough and the rewards close and clear enough where such an expensive enterprise makes sense for the weaker power, but this would indeed be very rare. That is why both Iran and Pakistan backed off with what Sameer Lalwani terms ‘de-escalatory retaliation’, a retaliation that appears to have been more of a face-saver, designed to signal that they are not looking to escalate.
Retaliatory actions like the Soleimani killing or Balakot also creates other dilemma for the weaker power that could strengthen deterrence. Weaker states will not be able to accurately calculate when the stronger state will retaliate. Iran appeared convinced that Trump would not respond with force because he had failed to respond to previous attacks. In fact, he had railed against US involvement in previous ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East, which suggested that he was looking for way out rather than an excuse to start a new one. Similarly, India’s failure to retaliate to previous attacks possibly made Rawalpindi confident that Indian restraint would continue. After the surgical strike and Balakot attack, Pakistan will need to factor possible Indian retaliation into its calculation, just as Iranian calculations will have been complicated by the killing of Soleimani.
Of course, the comparison between the US-Iran dyad and the India-Pakistan is one that should be made only quite carefully. The disparity in power in the latter is nowhere near as great as in the former. Moreover, there are questions about Indian military capabilities because of years of low budgets, an incompetent weapons procurement process and dysfunctional civil-military relations. Still, any escalation would cost Pakistan disproportionately and this will be an important restraint and hence deterrent on Pakistan’s behavior.
A final point to note is that while there have been some questions about whether the Soleimani attack signifies renewed US focus on the Middle East at the cost of attending to the Indo-Pacific, the equation is not as clear-cut. For one, the US is unlikely to get involved in a large-scale ground campaign in the Middle East, which could be a real worry. Moreover, the US willingness to take successful military action cannot but add credibility to American power in the Indo-Pacific. Simply put, China cannot ignore this successful display of American military capability and the political willingness to use it.
Relative power matters in deterrence, especially when the disparity is quite large and when stronger states are willing to lean on this disparity. The escalation threat was never credible for the weaker side and both American and Indian military actions demonstrate this amply.