The assassination of Iran’s second most powerful leader at the direction of U.S. President Donald Trump will likely have the same seismic impact on the modern history of the Middle East that the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq had in 2003.
It will be interpreted in Iran and beyond as an act of war.
It will ensure severe Iranian retaliation against American military forces as well as vulnerable U.S. allies in the Middle East.
And it will lead to a cascade of unpredictable events that will once again plunge the region, and the United States, into another cycle of death.
This is a very dangerous moment.
The world now knows what can happen when an American president is motivated, not by a wise understanding of U.S. strategic interests, but by adolescent impulse and whim, as he darts in and out of the buffet line at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
The shock for many in the murder early Friday morning of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike near the Baghdad airport was that there was no clear answer to the question of “Why now?”
For two decades, Soleimani had been the feared leader of Iran’s elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. His symbolic value to the Islamic regime was second only to that of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani led the fight against American, Israeli and Saudi Arabian efforts to destroy the Iranian regime, and just as his military foes had, he had blood on his hands, including the blood of American soldiers.
But blame for that wasn’t limited to him. In addition to the 4,500 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, there were also more than a half million Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the U.S.-British invasion in 2003.
Soleimani was particularly loathed by the American military. A string of high-profile U.S. military generals were openly determined to see him dead.
Trump’s two predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both had opportunities to have Soleimani killed but decided against it. They felt the potentially explosive response from Iran wasn’t worth the risk.
Not so Trump. By ordering the drone strike that killed the Iranian general, he decided differently.
We must now await the consequences.
A point worth making is that when Trump took office, there was no genuine American crisis with Iran. Against all odds, the world’s leading powers, including Obama’s America, had worked out a nuclear deal with Iran that would have ensured at least a decade of relative stability.
The hope then was that Iran would gradually be reintegrated into the world’s international community as a responsible player.
But when Trump came to power, surrounded by hawks who had supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed severe American sanctions that have undermined that country’s economy.
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These harsh actions have strengthened the hardliners in Tehran and, not surprisingly, Iran has struck back through its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
But if Trump’s dramatic move against Soleimani was shocking to many, it was not really surprising. The road to a major war with Iran, with the ultimate goal of crushing the government in Tehran, has been years in the planning.
Barack Obama’s efforts to seek peace with Iran inflamed America’s military hawks and the leadership of the Republican party. They shared the fear of Israel and Saudi Arabia that Iran, their arch-rival, might one day become more credible.
What they did was revealed last September in a special investigative piece, entitled “The Secret History of the Push to Strike Iran,” in The New York Times and the German newspaper Die Zeit.
According to the article, they saw Trump’s election in 2016 as their real opportunity based on the gamble “that Iran will break before November 2020,” either through economic or military pressure, “when the next American election could bring a new president who ends Trump’s hardball tactics.”
This is “all in aid of what the president’s advisers see as their larger goal,” concludes the piece, and that is “a realignment of the Middle East, with Israel and select Sunni nations gaining supremacy over Iran.”
In other words, this is all part of a plan.
There are, of course, other possible reasons for Trump’s military actions this week.
He gave a hint at this in 2011 and 2012, well before he ran for office, when he accused then-President Obama of seeking war with Iran to help his 2012 election campaign.
“Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate,” Trump said in a video blog. “He’s weak, and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get re-elected, as sure as you’re sitting there, is to start a war with Iran.”
Surely, this American president wouldn’t stoop so low.