Donald Trump’s decision to order the targeted assassination of Iran’s top general on Jan. 3 has turned out to be exactly the sort of hash the world has come to expect from the U.S. President.
It’s not a surprise that a President with no coherent foreign policy hasn’t been able to provide evidence of his claim that Gen. Qassem Soleimani was planning an “imminent" attack on American interests in the Middle East.
And it is perfectly befitting the man that, after having been called out for that lack of evidence, Mr. Trump would tweet that “it doesn’t really matter” if there was an imminent threat, because Gen. Soleimani had committed plenty of terrible acts in the past, and they were justification enough for killing him in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport.
But the problems with the killing of Gen. Soleimani – the way it was carried out, and the lack of a coherent American strategy surrounding it – are mitigated when the focus shifts away from how the current U.S. President ought to behave (but never will), and turns to the actions of Iran.
There is no question the Iran regime was asking for trouble. Gen. Soleimani more than once taunted Mr. Trump in speeches. And for the past year, Iran has been violently pushing America’s buttons, often through the use of proxy militias whose sponsor was Gen. Soleimani. Iran was getting away with it, too.
In June, Iranian forces shot down an American surveillance drone. Mr. Trump, in his usual manner, ordered a sharp retaliation and then unexpectedly cancelled it at the last minute. The same month, U.S. Navy officials said Iranian mines had crippled two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a transit point for much of the world’s oil; Mr. Trump did not retaliate.
In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said missile attacks on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia were an “act of war” by Iran. Once again, Mr. Trump balked at a warlike response. Despite the President’s reputation for verbal belligerence, his passivity was signalling a willingness to allow America to be bullied without consequence.
That changed in late December, when Iranian-backed forces in Iraq under the control of Gen. Soleimani fired missiles at an Iraqi military base and killed an American. This time, Mr. Trump ordered a counter-assault against the Iraqi militia involved. The strike killed at least 25 members.
Two days later, members of the same Iran-backed Iraqi militia led protesters who stormed the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. The message from Iran was clear: We seized your embassy in Tehran and took hostages in 1979; we can do it again if we want.
That’s when Mr. Trump decided to strike at Iran directly. The attack on Gen. Soleimani was meant to be part of a one-two punch, with the other target a key Iranian military operative in Yemen.
That second attack failed. But we know what has happened since: Iran blinked.
After loud chest-beating for domestic political consumption, the regime chose to respond with a missile barrage on two U.S. military bases in Iraq that was designed not to kill any Americans stationed at either place. It was a display of force made impotent by the Iran regime’s knowledge that, if it escalated the conflict, its members risked becoming the targets of a military force of incomparable reach and power.
And then came the accidental downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, and the international condemnation of Iran’s handling of the tragedy.
Iran’s repressive regime is now backed up against a wall. The country’s shattered economy is continuing to contract, thanks to sanctions the Trump administration imposed after it pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The countries that are still party to the deal are threatening to impose their own sanctions if Iran sees through its threat to restart its centrifuges.
Regime change in Iran is desirable, but unlikely. But if the consequences of killing of Gen. Soleimani are seized upon by the U.S. and its allies to press the country’s brutal leaders for reform, and to end their violence in neighbouring countries, the tragedy of Flight 752 could lead to something positive.
The U.S. is not responsible for the Flight 752 tragedy – that’s all on Iran. But it’s important that the unprecedented act of killing Gen. Soleimani not begin and end with an exchange of fire between two old belligerents. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s assertion, things matter very much.