The United States has been in a 40-year cold war with Iran.
Just like the cold war with the Soviet Union, the conflict between Washington and Tehran has been fought largely through proxies: in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq. Iranian-aligned organizations like Hezbollah have attacked U.S. targets, such as the 1984 embassy bombing in Beirut. U.S. allies, like Israel, have assassinated Iranian scientists.
There have been also been non-kinetic attacks, like when the United States and Israel teamed up to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet malware. Occasional détentes have interrupted the hostilities, most recently the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration, but they have been brief.
Now, thanks to Donald Trump’s impulsive militarism and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s more deliberate escalation strategy, this 40-year war is turning hot.
Last week, the Trump administration assassinated Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. The explosion also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a paramilitary group supported by Iran. The drone attack came after a rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq killed an Iraqi-American contractor and multiple U.S. counter-strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria.
The administration justified the killing of Soleimani by suggesting that he and Iran’s surrogates throughout the region were on the verge of attacks that threatened U.S. soldiers. It has not provided evidence for these imminent attacks.
So far, Iran’s response to the killings has been restrained. It vowed to retaliate. It stepped away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Then, on Tuesday night, it launched missile attacks against two bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. Iran “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, adding “we do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Trump’s interpretation of Iran’s actions is that the country is standing down. He decided, in a speech on Wednesday, to limit U.S. response to additional sanctions against Tehran.
Donald Trump has tried to convince the American electorate that he wants to end America’s endless wars in the Middle East by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Even before the recent escalation of tensions with Iran, however, Trump sent an additional 14,000 troops to the Middle East. After the latest drone strikes, he has announced the dispatch of 3,000 more.
When is a surge not a surge? When Donald Trump orders one.
This latest assassination reveals Trump’s real intentions. He is not interested in ending America’s endless wars. Rather, he is rushing to add one more to the list. The current crisis might be averted, but the longer war with Iran continues.
Donald Trump has long viewed Iran as the number one problem in the Middle East.
In so doing, his administration has ignored Saudi Arabia’s legitimate claim to that status (the war in Yemen, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, widespread human rights abuses). Meanwhile, Trump has coddled Turkey’s increasingly interventionist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who invaded Syria in October and just sent troops to Libya to support the government in Tripoli. And the U.S. president has also downplayed the capacity of the Islamic State to revive and wreak further havoc in the region.
Trump’s focus on Iran is both personal and political. He has desperately wanted to prove that his predecessor’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran were wrong. Imagine if Jimmy Carter had launched a military campaign against China in 1977 just to prove that Richard Nixon’s détente with Beijing was bogus. Trump is subject to what literary critic Harold Bloom called, in another context, the “anxiety of influence.”
At a political level, Iran is a convenient enemy to justify otherwise unpopular U.S. policies in the region: maintaining troops in Iraq, siding with Saudi Arabia, marching in lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
In addition to doing everything he could to destroy the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Trump authorized sweeping containment measures to squeeze Iran economically, including direct sanctions and penalties for any country or entity that does business with Iran. These measures are not designed to hit Iran when it’s down but, rather, to undermine its regional influence.
Ever since the Iraq War eliminated its chief rival, Saddam Hussein, Iran has emerged as an increasingly important powerbroker in the Middle East. It helped stabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Its Hezbollah allies have growing political pull in Lebanon. Its more distant allies in Yemen have withstood a wave of punishing attacks from Saudi Arabia (with U.S. backing). And, in a distinct rebuke to U.S. efforts, Tehran holds more sway in post-Saddam Iraq than Washington does.
Economic sanctions have certainly hurt Iran tremendously. When the government unexpectedly raised gas prices by 50 percent back in November, protests broke out across the country, with some protesters even calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. The government responded with widespread repression, arresting as many as 7,000 people and killing a couple hundred. It was the worst political violence in the country since the revolution in 1979.
The Trump administration’s moves have certainly helped to remake Iran in the image it prefers: a hardline government resistant to compromise with the West and the United States in particular. Trump’s recalcitrance on the nuclear deal and the ratcheting up of sanctions elevated figures like Soleimani in Tehran’s policymaking apparatus. It will be a long time before the reformers can recover from the loss of political capital they’ve suffered in the transition from Obama to Trump.
Also, thanks to Trump’s latest moves, the Islamic Republic is now united in purpose after months of strife. Regime change, the ultimate goal of key members of the Trump administration, has become ever more unlikely. Mike Pompeo, the chief architect of this strategy, has decided to stay on as secretary of state — instead of running for the Senate in Kansas — at least in part to pursue this campaign against Iran.
The departure of more traditionally conservative voices in the Pentagon — especially Jim Mattis — has cleared the way for Pompeo to push his agenda more forcefully. The administration’s obsession with Iran really boils down to Pompeo’s obsession. “If it’s about Iran, he will read it,” one diplomat told The Washington Post, referring to all the paper on Pompeo’s desk. “If it’s not, good luck.”
Once there’s blood in the water, Trump tends to go berserk, at least rhetorically. He has threatened Iran left and right if it retaliates for Soleimani’s murder. He even indicated that the Pentagon would target Iran’s cultural sites, a violation of the Geneva Conventions (Defense Secretary Mark Esper subsequently contradicted his boss by ruling out such attacks).
But the lack of U.S. casualties in Iran’s counter-attack has allowed Trump to stand down. The truth is, Trump is deeply worried about the blowback.
Having killed Soleimani to prevent a supposed wave of attacks against U.S. assets, he made this scenario far more likely. It’s why the Pentagon was previously reluctant to pursue such strategies. Now that he has rushed in where the Pentagon had previously feared to tread, Trump has no doubt come to realize that the death of American soldiers is not a good look for a president going into an election year.
Iranian allies in the region, particularly in Iraq, might not be as circumspect as Tehran. If there are future attacks against U.S. interests, Trump may feel it necessary to back up his bombastic rhetoric with actual bombs.
Ironically, Iran’s position in Iraq had eroded over the last few months as protests against corruption and economic austerity had spread throughout the country. Those protests developed a distinctly anti-Iranian flavor after paramilitaries linked to Tehran began killing the protestors. The U.S. drone strike, however, has served to remind Iraqis of the clear and present danger of its putative ally compared to its inescapable neighbor.
The most immediate consequence of the U.S. drone strike was the decision of the Iraqi parliament this weekend to kick U.S. troops out of the country. Or, at least, the Shiite members of parliament voted in favor of the measure, while most other members sat out the vote.
The Iraqi government, currently under a caretaker prime minister, may decide not to implement the measure, particularly in the face of threatened sanctions from Washington. However, Iraq doesn’t want to be caught in the middle between a militant America and an aggrieved Iran. The roughly 5,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be a prominent target for Iran-affiliated paramilitaries — or another direct attack from Tehran.
No surprise, then, that the Pentagon is in a quandary. A letter from a U.S. general to his Iraqi counterpart leaked on Monday suggested that plans were underway to withdraw troops from Iraq. The Pentagon immediately held a press conference to say that the letter was a “mistake.”
Should U.S. troops leave Iraq, the country that stands to benefit the most would be Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not surprisingly condemned the assassination of Soleimani. It has largely maintained good relations with Tehran over the years, but it hasn’t had much influence in Baghdad. It could quickly capitalize on the vacuum of powerin Iraq by supplying military hardware and stepping up to take on a resurgent Islamic State.
Outside of Israel, which enthusiastically supported the U.S. action, it’s hard to find any country that thinks Trump made a smart move. European governments were generally appalled. Pompeo has bristled at European criticisms, saying, “The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.” Rather, Europeans are worried that they’ll be caught up in the whirlwind that the United States will be reaping in the Middle East.
Of course, European leaders are also understandably worried about what Trump might do next. They’ve suffered from his trade policies, his disruptions at NATO and G7 meetings, his personal invective. Now they’re behaving like battered spouses afraid to dissolve the marriage. Witness former European Council president Donald Tusk’s plea for Europe and the United States to “maintain transatlantic unity in the face of the approaching political earthquake.”
Transatlantic unity? There’s been precious little of that, particularly around Iran. Europe desperately tried to preserve the nuclear deal. The European Parliament diverged from U.S. policy by passing a number of resolutions condemning Saudi conduct and recommending an end to arms exports to the country. There hasn’t been such a gulf in transatlantic approaches to the Middle East since the Suez crisis of 1956.
Not that it matters one whit to the Trump administration, but UN rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard has declared Soleimani’s killing as “most likely unlawful” and the death of the other six people in the drone attacks “absolutely” unlawful. Unfortunately, Trump and his crowd consider such determinations from the UN to be a badge of distinction.
Plenty of aspirants have signed up for the job of mediator between Washington and Tehran. Japan tried. So did Pakistan. Several European countries — France, Germany — have made multiple attempts. Oman, which was the key party in getting the nuclear deal off the ground, continues to provide its good offices.
All this mediation will not likely amount to much in the remaining months of the Trump administration. Unlike with North Korea, Trump has shown zero interest in compromise with Iran. However, that doesn’t mean these efforts are for naught. Even without an actual deal on the table, this mediation can help reduce the scale of the escalation dynamic. As importantly, the discussions that take place now can feed into a restart after the November election (provided Trump’s reelection effort is thwarted).
Here in the United States, Congress is doing what it can to tie the president’s hands. The House is angling to pass a War Powers Resolution demanding that the administration cease all military actions against Iran within 30 days. It’s unclear how many Republicans in the Senate will support a similar measure.
That’s all good and well. But Trump has shown nothing but contempt for Congress. He has declared that his tweets serve as congressional notification of military action. He has pulled out all the stops to obstruct the congressional impeachment investigation. And he’ll veto anything that threatens to besmirch his reputation or limit his maneuvering room.
At this point, the most useful thing that Congress can do is proceed with the impeachment hearings in the Senate. Legislation won’t restrain the president. But continued revelations of misconduct might do the trick by refocusing the White House on domestic scandals (provided Trump is not tempted to keep wagging the dog).
The most damaging revelations in the impeachment inquiry might come from the testimony of John Bolton, if the Democrats can introduce new witnesses into the Senate hearing. Thus a final irony: the man most associated in the administration with a hardline position toward Iran might help bring down the president before he can launch a full-scale war on that country.
It’s a sign of desperate times when the likes of Bolton becomes a potential savior of democracy.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.