President Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of war. Fortunately, at least for now, both pulled back. Iran’s face-saving retaliation was planned (with the probable assistance of Iraq) to hit parts of US bases that had long been abandoned, insuring no American casualties. Then both Trump and the Iranian government announced that they would take no further armed actions, although American sanctions on Iran continue an Iran still is arming and guiding proxies throughout the Middle East.
Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani was in a sense surprising and the result of miscalculations by his military advisors. The dead American who prompted Trump’s decision to take revenge was a contractor, not a soldier. The US in both the Afghan and Iraq wars has employed more private contractors than soldiers in part because contractors, even if US citizens, are not included in the casualty totals. This has the effect of making a significant portion the number of Americans killed in those wars invisible to the public. Thus, 257 American contractors died in the Iraq war who are not include in the count of the 4424 US soldiers killed in that war. In Afghanistan contractors are a much larger share of the total deaths: there have been 2,372 U.S. military deaths in the War in Afghanistan along with 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities. Thus, it is a surprise that Trump would get so upset at one civilian contractor’s death in Iraq and choose to respond with the assassination of Iran’s leading general.
Trump asked the Pentagon to provide a list of options for responding to the contractor’s death. When James Mattis was Secretary of Defense, he instructed Pentagon officials to never include an attack on Iran in any of the options presented to Trump. Mattis had had a long military career before becoming secretary. His successor Mark Esper also had years of experience in the military, as an aide in Congress, and most recently as a lobbyist for defense firms. However, those experience evidently hasn’t given Esper enough wisdom on how to deal with Trump. He foolishly allowed the general to present he assassination of Soleimani as one of the options, and Trump chose that over other less provocative actions. That Esper and the generals were surprised by Trump’s choice only shows they don’t understand their commander-in-chief’s personality very well and haven’t yet absorbed the depth of Trump’s ignorance about the world and his lack of strategic thinking.
What will happen next? I certainly can’t claim greater insight into Trump’s erratic thought processes than the Secretary of Defense. Trump most likely will continue to be torn between his desire to appear a strong and manly defender of American interests, in contrast to his distorted image of Obama as a weak coddler of Islamic terrorists, and his political interest in avoiding a new war in the Middle East that would be unpopular with most voters and especially with his core supporters who are sick of the seemingly endless and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The best, and only realistic, way to end the conflict between the US and Iran is obvious and has been proposed by many political figures and commentators throughout the world: the US should reopen negotiations with Iran and offer an end to sanctions and military provocations in return for reinstating the nuclear agreement Obama negotiated along with Iran’s promise (perhaps only offered in secret to preserve face) to reduce its support for anti-governmental forces or parties in government in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It is difficult to image Trump backing down in his confrontation with Iran, and it also is hard to see how Iran could ever trust an agreement with Trump. Iran might not be willing to trust a future US president. After all, while Trump broke an agreement negotiated by his predecessor, other US presidents have engaged in illegal acts against Iran. Under Eisenhower, the US (along with Britain) organized a coup that deposed Iran’s democratically elected government. Under Reagan the US shot down an Iranian civilian airliner. Although the US later said that was a mistake, it later awarded the commandeering officer of the ship that fired the missile a Legion of Merit "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.” And George W. Bush’s Administration refused Iran’s offer of major concessions in return for peaceful relations and despite Iran’s help in defeating the Taliban and deposing Saddam Hussein.
If Trump is reelected, we can expect another four years of confrontation between the US and Iran. Trump’ racist hatred of Obama and resulting desire to undo every Obama achievement will continue. His Administration will continue to be staffed by aides form the Republican foreign policy establishment that is committed to continuing the efforts to drive Iran’s Islamist government from power. Iran therefore will continue to be squeezed by sanctions and its government will be tempted to exert counterpressure through attacks on US allies in the Middle East. And of course, there always is the danger that Israel will bomb Iran, especially if Iran seems to be moving closer to building a nuclear bomb.
The greatest losers from the continued confrontation, beyond the Iranian people, are others in the Middle East who will feel the effects of, or be drawn into, a war between the US or Israel and Iran. Iran’s September 2019orne attack on Saudi oil processing facilities made clear to Iran’s neighbors that Iran could inflict serious harm if those countries attacked Iran or failed to dissuade the US or Israel from doing so. Since then the Saudis and Emirates have engaged in indirect (and perhaps also in secret) talks with Iran seeking to defuse tensions. If those talks lead to an accommodation, it will be without US involvement and serve to further marginalize America’s influence in the Middle East. The most likely certain consequence Trump’s actions toward Iran will be to encourage Middle Eastern countries to determine their own interests and deal with each other on that basis and not as proxies or enemies of the United States.