According to many pundits and prognosticators, the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was going to precipitate World War III. And if not that, it would certainly land us in a quagmire like the ones that followed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the other hand, the elimination of Soleimani may turn out to be the most brilliant strategic move in the twenty-year-long war on terror. If anything, it demonstrates that the war on terror can be won without launching a full-fledged war.

Iran’s half-hearted response to the assassination of Soleimani showed that the last thing it wants is a war with the U.S.—at least, not yet. Iran cannot match the military might of America, and it knows it. But the acquisition of nuclear weapons would change the odds somewhat. If Iran possessed atomic weapons, it’s less likely that the U.S. would have taken the chance of ridding the world of its chief Islamic terrorist—a man who supplied terrorist groups all over the world with money and assault weapons.

One of the main reasons the U.S. went to war in Iraq is that it mistakenly thought Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. A large coalition of nations decided that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a man like Hussein posed an unacceptable threat to world security.

As it turned out, Saddam had no nuclear arsenal. But the situation with Iran is quite different. Iran actually is very close to producing nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and once they have enough it is very likely they will use them. In comparison to the mullahs, Saddam was a model of moderation.

Unlike Saddam, who was basically a secularist, the Iranian leaders are true believers who look forward to the return of the Mahdi—the Twelfth Imam who disappeared centuries ago, and whose return will supposedly bring justice and peace to the world. They also believe that his return can only be precipitated by apocalyptic events—such as a world war.

So, World War III is not off the table, but the chances for it are now more remote because of Soleimani’s death and the precise manner in which it was executed. The Iranian leadership subscribes to a crazy apocalyptic belief, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be calculating. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for one, is often described as being a pragmatist. He may have pushed the limits in the past, but that’s because he was used to dealing with Obama and other world leaders who could be relied on not to push back.

Now that he sees that the rules of the game have changed, so have his tactics. His missile strike on the Iraqi-American base was calculated not to cause any American deaths. Meanwhile, it’s been reported that leading terrorists in Iraq have gone into hiding lest they be droned out of existence as Soleimani was. Apparently, they too have a pragmatic side.

All this could change, of course, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons. And because they have never really observed the restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal—the JCPOA—they can develop them within a relatively short time.

That’s why President Trump, in recent statements,  has emphasized that Iran must never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Other leaders have said that Iran must give up its nuclear ambitions, but Trump apparently means it, and the heavy economic pressure the administration is putting on Iran will hopefully force them to give up their nuclear program or else face financial disaster.

The new policy on Iran was outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July of 2018. The essence of the plan was to launch a “diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction.”

Sounds reasonable. Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? Well, perhaps because the previous administration was too busy thinking up ways to appease the Iranians. The bright idea they came up with was to send planeloads of money to Iran if only the Iranians would promise to sign the nuclear deal. One of the reasons Soleimani was able to create so much havoc throughout the world was that the Obama administration foolishly gave $150 billion in sanctions relief and $1.8 billion in cash to the Iranian regime as part of the disastrous deal. Had the Iranian leaders all been Swedes of the Quaker persuasion, the plan might have worked. But since they were not, they took the money and ran up a big tab at the arms-sellers bazaar.

The Obama initiative was based on a huge misunderstanding of what the Iranian Revolution was all about. Under the two shahs, Iran had become Westernized and largely secularized. The purpose of the Revolution was to restore Iran to its Islamic roots. It’s all spelled out in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

They [The Army and the Revolutionary Guards] have responsibility not only for the safeguarding of the frontiers, but also for a religious mission, which is Holy War (JIHAD) along the way of God and the struggle to extend the supremacy of God’s Law in the world.

So, the framers of the Iranian Constitution looked upon themselves as jihadists whose mission was to spread sharia law throughout the world. Like the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, the revolution was not meant for just one country, but for the whole world. Nevertheless, the Obama administration went ahead and gave them $150 billion as a gesture of trust and good will.

Obviously, the Obama administration failed to appreciate the revolutionary mission of the Iranian regime. It also failed to understand the religious nature of the so-called “Republic.” You may have noticed that the “Supreme Leader” of the republic is an Ayatollah. To the average person that suggests that Iran is a theocracy. It’s as if the President of the United States had to answer to the archbishop of Washington, D.C. It seems safe to say that most people in America, including many Catholics, would not be happy with that arrangement.

It may come as a surprise to learn that many Iranians feel the same way. They are not happy with the Ayatollah or the theocracy. During the mass protests in 2018, one popular slogan was “The people are paupers, while the mullahs live like gods.” Picking up on the theme, Pompeo referred to “intolerant, black-robed enforcers” in his 2018 speech to an audience that included many members of the Iranian-American community.

To some, the killing of Soleimani was a reckless gesture that will bring us closer to war and to a boots-on-the-ground quagmire in Iran. But recent events and non-events suggest that Iran is in no position to go to war. Years of heavy economic sanctions under the current administration have severely undermined Iran’s military capabilities.

As for boots-on-the-ground, the Trump administration has made it clear that it does not desire to have military footprints all over the world. And the targeted strike on Soleimani makes it clear that it doesn’t need to. In the event of further Iranian aggression, Iran’s military can be crippled by airstrikes, cyberwar, increased economic sanctions—and targeted drone strikes. The fear of the latter has already forced numerous terrorist leaders into hiding.

There is another factor to consider. There is a growing “fifth-column” of Iranians who feel more affinity with the West than with the “black-robed enforcers.” They know that only forty years ago, Iran was a much freer place. Many want the Mullahs gone from power and many want an end to the repression of sharia law.

For many months now, tens of thousands have been protesting the government in cities all over Iran. The regime has responded by killing over 1,500 of the demonstrators. But after the precision elimination of Soleimani, Iranian leaders may be having second thoughts about that level of retaliation. With a new and more realistic Iran policy in place, it will be the Iranian leaders who will have to worry about engaging in reckless actions that might bring severe and highly personalized repercussions.

Judging by three years of continuous protests and strikes, the people of Iran seem ready for regime change. But President Trump has been repeatedly warned against seeking regime change by people on all shades of the political spectrum. If by regime change they mean one that’s effected by a boots-on-the-ground, multi-year occupation, that’s probably good advice; and Trump seems to be of the same mind.

However, regime change in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Recall that St. John Paul II applied all the pressure of his office to bring about regime change in Eastern Europe—and with salutary results.

On the other hand, regime change has not been a roaring success in places such as Afghanistan—a country that seems likely to sink back under the control of the Taliban before long. So, what are the chances of success in Iran, a country which not only shares a border with Afghanistan, but also a religion?

In some respects, however, the situation in Iran bears a stronger resemblance to Eastern Europe than to Afghanistan. Although the people of Eastern Europe had suffered under communism for many decades, they could look back to a tradition of rights and freedoms. The people of Iran can also look back to better days.

Although life was not all roses and clover under the rule of Reza Shah Pavlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Shah, Iranians enjoyed more freedoms and a higher standard of living due to the social and economic reform instituted by the first Shah and expanded by his son. Reza Shah Pavlavi had been inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey. And the two Shah’s enjoyed considerable success in creating a more Westernized and secularized Iran—one in which the grip of the mullahs was greatly weakened.

Which brings us to the subject of religion. Although not intended as such by all the participants, the Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah eventually revealed itself to be a religious revolution. As the new Constitution emphasized, it was a revolution to spread Islam and Sharia law across the globe. And, in fact, the Iranian Revolution provided inspiration to hardline clerics all across the Muslim world. Much of the Muslim world quickly transitioned from a more relaxed practice of Islam to a more rigorous one. And in Tehran, Cairo, Istanbul and other Muslim capitals, mini-skirts gave way to ankle-length chadors and even to burqas.

We tend to think of Islam as a deeply rooted religion which is immune to change. But it’s well to keep in mind that the “deeply rooted” Islam that we see today in many parts of the Muslim world is of fairly recent vintage. It was a response to a widespread loss of faith in Islam, that began with the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon and continued under 20th-century secular leaders such as Ataturk, the Shahs, Nasser, Hussein, and Ghadafi.

Because the Muslim world has already suffered a loss of faith, it’s not farfetched to think that it can happen again. And Iran may be just the right place for the counter-revolution to begin.

Many Iranians would clearly like to uproot the theocratic regime. They have lost faith in it. And there are signs that some are also losing faith in the theology that undergirds the theocracy. Many Iranians are turning to secularism (which often involves a pride in Iran’s Persian heritage, rather than its Muslim history) and many, despite the danger, are turning to Christianity (which is Iran’s fastest growing religion).

Faith in Islam waxes and wanes with the perceived power of Islam. As Osama bin Laden observed, “When a man sees a strong horse and a weak horse, he naturally favors the strong horse.” The combined effect of massive demonstrations, effective sanctions, and the elimination of al-Baghdadi and Soleimani may be the catalyst that causes Muslims—not just in Iran, but in other places as well—to question whether Islam is really the strong horse it purports to be.

This article originally appeared in the January 31, 2020 edition of Catholic World Report.

Pictured above: Ayatollah Khamenei

Photo credit: The Times of Israel