Now that he possesses only a small kitchen cabinet full of “yes men” to advise him, it should not have been surprising that President Trump opted for the drone assassination of Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Mandis and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the Head of the Iranian Quds Force, among other militia leaders, on Iraqi territory. It was an action that enraged both the Iraqi and Iranian leaderships.
Trump purportedly took the most extreme option that was presented to him in easy-to-view briefing slides. His decision to engage in the January 3, 2020 drone strike against Soleimani was purportedly taken without full interagency consultations to consider the best way to respond to the previous rocket attack on the K-1 base on December 27, 2019 which killed an American contractor. That attack was followed by US strikes on positions of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) on December 30, which killed dozens, and which was then followed by the attempt of pro-Iranian Iraqi groups to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31st1. As protests mounted in Baghdad, Trump most likely feared a possible repeat of Benghazi crisis in which an attack on the US diplomatic compound—on the heavily symbolic date of September 11, 2012—led to the killing of an US ambassador and US contractors. Another possible fear of Trump was a repeat of the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis that had paralyzed the Carter administration.
While the Benghazi crisis did not prevent Obama’s re-election in November 2012, the Iran hostage crisis was one of the major factors that led to President Carter’s defeat to Ronald Reagan in the presidential elections in November 1980. In his obsession for success and winning, Trump certainly does not want to suffer the same fate as did Carter in 1980 in the upcoming November 2020 presidential elections.
As an act of retribution, the assassination of Soleimani was ostensibly taken to preclude future attacks on American interests and to weaken the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pâsdârân). Yet the action could, contrary to Trump’s intent, actually strengthen the Revolutionary Guards’ role in repressing the Iranian population—while further destabilizing the country, Iraq, and the region.
By killing Soleimani, the risk is that Trump has made a martyr of a generally (but not universally) popular Iranian leader—a general who was seen as successfully combating the Islamic State and Israel (in support of Hezb’allah), as well as the Americans. In effect, Trump has unleashed forces in Iran—and in the general region impacted by Iranian influence—that he will find very difficult to manage through brinkmanship.
The drone assassination may have been a tactical “success” for Trump and his electoral base of supporters—but it could also be a major strategic error that could make the possibility of an even more intensive and extensive war with Iran—plus domestic conflict inside Iraq as Iraqis splinter into pro-American, neutral, and pro-Iranian factions—increasingly likely.
After the failure/inability of the US to insist that the Shah of Iran implement far reaching social, economic and political reforms in the 1970s, the American leadership has consistently misinterpreted the nature of the Islamic Revolution in Iran from Day 1.
In hoping that a war would undermine Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Reagan administration had encouraged Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in September 1980 in response to the Ayatollah Khoemeni’s proclamations of support for Shia and Kurdish movements—and in an effort to seize Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan Province2. This led to an extremely bloody Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.
Yet as weak and divided as the Iranian regime was at the time, particularly after purging its officer core, the Ayatollah Khoemeni was able to consolidate his power by mobilizing the general population against Iraq’s invasion and by building the Revolutionary Guards (Pâsdârân)—a force which has continued to expand its political, economic, military power and socio-religious control in safeguarding the Islamic Revolution.
The Iranian Revolution continued to spread its influence in the region—particularly after the ill-advised US military intervention in Iraq in 2003 under US president George W. Bush, Jr. The latter military intervention—plus the subsequent dismantling of the pan-Arab Baath Socialist Party—opened the doors for Iranian penetration of Iraqi government and society. This was a major factor not foreseen by the neo-conservative “brains” that advised George W. Bush to engage in “regime change” in Iraq by military force.
After the assassination of Soleimani, Iran reacted by striking the US Ain al-Asad base as well as a major US military base in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil. These attacks resulted in the hospitalization of more than 100 US servicemen for traumatic brain injury—despite Trump’s denials that anyone was hurt—that ‘All is Well!’.
The Iranian regime then stated that it will end all restrictions on the numbers or type of centrifuges and on the level of enrichment of uranium that it can pursue—thereby potentially reducing the “break out time” that Tehran needs to develop an atomic bomb.
On the one hand, it appears dubious that Iran would go too far in actually developing an atomic bomb—as that option represents a red line that could lead Israel and/or the US to engage in preemptive military intervention against presumed Iranian nuclear weapons sites. On the other, as long as Iran threatens the nuclear option in the creation of what I call “nuclear high tension”3 —designed to keep world oil and gas prices high—the situation will continue to fester.
Given the reality that the US is unlikely to give up its maximum pressure and strong sanctions policy in an effort to achieve “regime change” in the near future, Iran will want to build up its alliances while waiting for the right moment to respond more strongly to the US attack on Soleimani and in protest against US sanctions policies in general. In the meantime, Iran can engage in low level cyber-attacks against the US and its allies, for example. It can also engage in future proxy attacks on US or Allied forces in bases in the region or in Europe
As I argued in my article, Trump, the dragon slayer, “As tensions mount over time, Tehran will attempt to strengthen its economic and military ties with China and Russia.” In the near future, Tehran could join a stronger China-Russia axis—as Beijing and Moscow work to build the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative—aligned Syria and possibly with Iraq and NATO-member Turkey and other regional powers4.
Ironically, Republicans since Reagan, more so than Democrats, have used the Iranian “threat” to strengthen their power base and electorate. This is because the Iran hostage crisis took place during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Republicans had effectively used the Iran hostage crisis to denounce Democratic “weaknesses” in the area of foreign policy. At the same time, both Republican hardliners and Iranian hardliners have ironically used each other to sustain their domestic power—while concurrently engaging in double dealing—as was the case with the Iran-Israel-Contra affair (1985-87), for example.
In his public statements prior to becoming president, Trump had repeatedly claimed that a “weak” and “ineffective” Obama would go to war with Iran in 2011-12 in order to win re-election because "he has absolutely no ability to negotiate," and “because he thinks that's the only way he can get elected5." Given the fact that Trump hopes to win the US presidency in November, could that same war logic apply to Trump’ own “ineffective” policy toward Iran?
Instead of going to war, however, Obama engaged in intense multilateral negotiations that achieved and implemented the 2015 Iran nuclear accord (the JCPOA) which was supported by all EU states, as well as Russia and China. The JCPOA deal backed by President Obama was not perfect, but it would have worked—if all sides engaged in the principle “trust but verify.”
For his part, instead of dumping the Iran nuclear accord, Trump could have sustained it. He could have then played “honest broker” in working to bring the Saudis and the Iranians into negotiations—so as to wind down the proxy wars now taking place in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere. And Trump could have also provided strong US backing for the Missile Technology Control Regime—given the fact that Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran all possess IRBM missile capacities. But this did not happen.
The fact that Trump unilaterally dumped the Iran nuclear accord has not only made it very difficult to rebuild mutual US-Iranian confidence—but has also made US relations with the Europeans, Russia and China less trustworthy. At the same time, on the more positive side, Iran still hopes to obtain European trade and investment, so the present leadership under President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that all steps toward enhancing nuclear enrichment that have thus far been taken are reversible—but only if all parties honor the JCPOA terms and eventually put an end to sanctions on Iran.
In effect, although it claims that it will refuse to talk to the Americans, Tehran still appears to want to talk to the Europeans. This appears true even if the Ayatollah Khamenei has called the Europeans the “footmen of the US” in his January 18, 2020 address—due to threat of the French, German and British governments to send Iran’s decision not to abide by the JCPOA nuclear accord to the UN Security Council. Yet this European action against Iranian actions can at least partially be explained by the Trump administration’s threat to hit the Europeans with a major 25% tariff on European auto imports if they do not apply sanctions on Iran—that is, if Britain, France and Germany do not formally accuse Iran of breaking the 2015 nuclear deal as Trump has demanded6. The Trump administration may have also threatened the UK with no trade deal with the US after Brexit if London did not step into line with US policy toward Iran7. If no compromise can be found, and if French, German and British actions do lead to the re-imposition of previous UN Security Council sanctions, Iran is likely to leave the JCPOA for good, and threaten to dump the NPT altogether8.
The decision of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to lead Friday prayers for the first time in eight years on January 18, 2020 appeared intended to deflect popular attention away from the Ukraine airline disaster which caused considerable social protest after 86 Iranians out of a total of 176 people were killed. By leading the prayer himself, Khamenei also hoped to galvanize the population and deflect attention away from repeated popular protests against regime corruption. Iranians have continued to protest against the augmentation of gas prices in November 2019 (imposed after US sanctions were imposed by Trump in May 2018 after he dumped the JCPOA nuclear accord), lack of jobs, inflation, as well as government ineptitude and outright lies. These protests have resulted in the killing and arrests of hundreds peaceful protesters by the Iranian state.
In the immediate aftermath of the Soleimani assassination, Iran shot not just one (as the Iranian government stated) but two missiles at a Ukrainian passenger plane—killing all 176 people on board over the Tehran Mehrabad International Airport. When the US navy had shot down an Iranian passenger plane in July 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, killing 290 people on board, President Reagan took three days to apologize. At that time, Washington continued to insist that the accident had been caused by the tense situation at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In the Iranian case, Tehran has somewhat similarly continued to blame the Americans for causing the tense situation in which Tehran feared that its weak air defenses could not hold up to a potential US cruise missile attack. These are just some of the unexpected “collateral damage” of conflict and war.
After the Ayatollah Khamenei’s January 18, 2020 sermon that criticized both the Americans and the Europeans, Trump threw more fuel on the fire by stating in a tweet… “The so-called “Supreme Leader” of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!” 9
As negative fallout from the insecurity-security dialectic, these accusations and counter-accusations simply make conflict resolution even more difficult to achieve—making the spiral toward war accompanied by “collateral damage” even more likely10.
Much as I argued in a previous Wall Street International article11, Trump is a wanna-be Timocrat who believes that the only way to reach a “deal” is through the use of pressure, threats, sanctions, if not the brutality of military force. Engaging in concerted diplomacy with the promise and hope of mutual compromise is often seen by Timocrats as too complex and time consuming.
Yet it is also the case that the unreflective use of force and violence can lead to even greater diplomatic complexities and draw the US and other countries into long-term conflicts as shown in US-led interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, among many other wars. The use of force is not as simple as it seems.
Trump nevertheless appears to believe his maximum pressure and sanctions campaign—that is truly hurting the general Iranian population while also pinpointing certain elites—will force Iran to capitulate and initiate “regime change.”
Yet it appears dubious that regime change is near at hand despite popular protest and Iran’s severe economic crisis—which the Iranian government blames on the Americans. The dilemma is that any form of regime change appears unlikely until the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, somehow fades out of power or dies in his sleep as many Iranian Ayatollahs have presumably died in the past.
And even if the aging Ayatollah Khamenei (to be 81 years old in April) eventually steps down, it appears dubious that the transition to a new leadership will take place peacefully. This negative scenario appears highly likely if Iranian society is thoroughly destabilized by the US maximum sanctions campaign and particularly if there is no effective and popularly perceived legitimate counter-leadership ready and prepared to take power.
Already, Iran’s Guardian Council, which decides who can run for parliament, has opted to remove some 9000 reformist, moderate and “inexperienced” new candidates from the ballot for the Iranian parliament’s 290 seats on February 21, 2020. At the same time, the regime is attempting to place “revolutionary youth” on the ballot as a means to provide the parliament with a new semblance of legitimacy. Given general voter alienation, the lack of reformist-oriented candidates could lead many Iranians not to vote in large numbers—thereby permitting hard-liners to control the parliament for the next four years, but also undermining the regime’s legitimacy12. We shall see who controls Iran’s parliament very shortly…
In addition, the so-called “reformist” President Rouhani—who is being attacked by hardliners and whose popular support is not that strong—will not be able to run for re-election in 2021. This presents the scenario that hardliners will win the Iranian presidency in 2021—most likely exacerbating social conflict within Iran and geopolitical conflict with the United States.
In implementing his maximum pressure strategy, Trump may presently believe that he can continue to play brinksmanship and somehow prevent from US-Iranian tensions from spinning out of control before the November 2020 Presidential elections. But as the Iranian economy has plunged by an estimated 9.5 percent in 2019, Trump’s so-called maximum pressure strategy appears designed to bring chaos—not just for Iran—but also for Iraq, which is impacted by the Iranian economy, and for the wider region. Here, the assassination of Soleiman may have blocked hopes for indirect talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran while also stalling backdoor negotiations between the Yemen government and the Houthi’s13.
As much as Trump has hoped that the assassination of Soleimani, plus the massive US military build-up (coupled with a massive federal debt), will him buy him votes in the November 2020 US elections, it is not certain that Trump will necessarily be able to play games of brinksmanship short of war as he appears to believe. Trump wants to claim that he—and not a Democrat—is the only person capable of acting as commander in chief versus Iran. The risk is that Iran could be tempted to strike back at Donald Trump in a major pre-US presidential election surprise attack—that may or may not prevent Trump from being re-elected as Tehran might hope14.
Only a concerted diplomatic approach involving Russia, China, the EU, Switzerland, Qatar, Oman and other more neutral states can help prevent a further deterioration of the US-Iranian relationship—as it impacts the “wider Middle East” and the world. But this approach will require painstaking diplomacy and geopolitical and economic trade-offs.
If Trump does not soon reverse course by fully engaging in concerted diplomacy15, he risks a self-fulfilled prophecy that his Peace through Strength and America First doctrine had hoped to prevent: The formation of a counter-alliance of Russia, China, Iran, Syria and North Korea, among other states against American global hegemony—a counter-alliance that could be accompanied by the splintering of US ties with key allies, such as Iraq and NATO-member Turkey16.
The forthcoming parliamentary elections in Iran on February 21, 2020—plus the presidential elections in the US in November 2020 and then in Iran (expected in 2021)—could well result in a final showdown between Iranian mullahs and the US Cowboys—if the hardliners coming to power on both sides refuse to cut a deal …
1 Why did the Pentagon ever give Trump the option of killing Soleimani?, Could diplomacy come after tragedy in Iran?.
2 Barry M. Lando, Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush, (Other Press, 2007).
3 See Hall Gardner, Averting Global War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
4 Berlinger, Joshua; Mackintosh, Eliza. Iranians mourn slain general. CNN. Retrieved 6 January 2020. The situation has led Moscow to offer Iraq its advanced surface to air S-400 missile—an option that would further upset US-Iraq relations if taken. Russia Re-ups Offer To Arm Iraq With S-400 Air Defenses As Relations with the U.S. Sour.
5 Trump repeatedly claimed in 2011 and 2012 that Obama would start a war with Iran to win reelection.
6 U.S. threatened Europe with auto tariffs over Iran nuclear program - Washington Post.
7 UK-US trade deal under threat unless Iran stance changes, says Trump ally.
8 Will Europe’s latest move lead to the demise of the Iran nuclear deal?.
9 The so-called “Supreme Leader.
10 Countdown to World War Trump.
11 The Year 2019.
12 Trump & Co; Iran pares election roster in favor of hard-liners, Iran hardliners try to shape radical new parliament.
13 What it cost to kill Soleimani; On Fragile Footing In Yemen After The Soleimani Strike.
14 Such an action could be similar to the Beirut barracks bombings in October 1983 that represented a major factor that pressed Ronald Reagan to pull US forces out of Lebanon in addition to the collapse of the Lebanese national army. At that time, the US did not strike the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as proposed as it was not certain that Iran was behind the attacks.
15 The Emir of the Qatar, the Qatari foreign minister, and the Pakistani foreign minister have all gone to Tehran to defuse tensions. Oman has also been involved in mediation. Fearing Iranian retaliation, Dubai has recently shifted to a more conciliatory tone vis-a-vis Tehran. And the US and Iran purportedly still kept secret communication channels through Swiss intermediaries throughout the crisis.
16 Hall Gardner, World War Trump (Prometheus Books, 2018),