Shadow Government

Trump Is Playing With Fire in the Middle East

The U.S. president may claim that the strike on Iran’s Suleimani was meant to “stop a war,” yet it will do anything but.

Mourners wait for the funeral procession of the Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, and eight others outside the Imam Abbas mosque in Karbala, Iraq, on Jan. 4.
Mourners wait for the funeral procession of the Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, and eight others outside the Imam Abbas mosque in Karbala, Iraq, on Jan. 4. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

In June 2011, as U.S. forces were withdrawing from Iraq, Iranian-backed militants launched a series of powerful rocket attacks on American bases. More than a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed, the largest loss of life in many months. The Obama administration had two options for retaliating: a strike inside Iran that would kill Iranian operatives or unilateral special operations forces raids in Iraq against the militia rocket teams. To head off an escalation to a wider war with Iran, the administration chose the latter.

Last weekend, in response to a Dec. 27, 2019, rocket attack that killed an American contractor and wounded several U.S. and Iraqi personnel at a base near Kirkuk, the Trump administration initially followed a similar path by launching retaliatory airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia closely aligned with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But then, early Friday morning in Iraq (Thursday evening in the United States), U.S. President Donald Trump threw caution to the wind, authorizing a drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani—the head of the Quds Force of the IRGC and one of Iran’s most prominent leaders—as well as a number of senior Iraqi militia leaders near the Baghdad airport.

With Suleimani’s death, the monthslong tit-for-tat cycle of pressure and provocation between Washington and Tehran has entered a much more dangerous phase. The risk of a regionwide conflagration is higher than ever. Shortly before the strike, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper threatened preemptive action to protect U.S. forces, saying “the game has changed.” But this is not a game—and the stakes for both sides could not be higher.

No American should shed a tear for Suleimani. As the leader of Iran’s elite paramilitary Quds Force, Suleimani helped orchestrate attacks by Shiite Iraqi militias that killed hundreds of American troops during the U.S. occupation. He also directed Iranian policy and support for Lebanese Hezbollah, jihadists in Gaza, Houthi militants in Yemen, and the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. He had a hand in Iranian terrorist attacks abroad and brutal crackdowns against Iranian protesters at home.

Most recently, in response to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement and the administration’s maximum pressure campaign of withering sanctions, Iran has carried out a series of provocations with Suleimani’s fingerprints all over them—including threats to U.S. troops in Iraq. According Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Iranian-backed groups have engaged in a sustained campaign of rocket attacks targeting U.S. facilities in Iraq since October 2019. But until Dec. 27, none had drawn American blood. Once one did, the United States swiftly retaliated, launching strikes against Kataib Hezbollah targets on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. That, in turn, prompted Shiite militia leaders to mobilize a siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, raising the specter of a Benghazi-like scenario. This was the context for Trump’s decision to kill Suleimani.

But whatever underlying sense of justice Americans may feel now that a terrorist mastermind is dead, it should not obscure the very real prospect that his assassination could set in motion events that spiral out of control in ways that put Americans and U.S. interests in deeper danger.

Two previous U.S. administrations decided against a direct shot against Suleimani out of concern, widely shared by the Pentagon and the intelligence community, that all-out escalation would likely follow. As recently as this past spring, the Department of Defense warned the White House against designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, arguing that it could put the lives of U.S. personnel in Iraq and elsewhere in the region at risk. (Trump did so anyway.) And in June, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford helped talk Trump out of retaliating on Iranian soil for the Tehran’s downing of a U.S. drone. This cautious tradition has now been overturned.

Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the Suleimani strike as necessary to head off imminent additional attacks against U.S. forces and, in Trump’s words, “stop a war.” It is hard to assess these claims absent the administration releasing relevant intelligence, and whereas the Pentagon statement announcing the strike framed it as defensive, it did not say that any attack from Iran had been imminent. Moreover, some reporting suggests that Trump authorized the targeting of Suleimani after the Dec. 27 rocket assault, and U.S. special operations forces had been waiting for an opportunity for a clean shot ever since. That could explain why the strike happened even after the siege of the U.S. Embassy had ended and events in Iraq appeared to be de-escalating.

Regardless, the president and his closest advisors appear to have a theory behind the targeted killing of Suleimani. They seem to believe that Iran is a paper tiger and that, once punched in the nose, it will slink back into its cave. It is true that, in the past, the Iranian regime has sometimes shown caution in the face of a stronger adversary. It is also the case that, in order to manage escalation, Iranian leaders have historically responded to covert attacks with their own deniable actions or looked the other way when their proxies and advisers have been targeted by Americans or Israelis on foreign soil.

But the Suleimani strike is different. It was an overt act against perhaps the second-most-prominent official in Iran. From an Iranian perspective, the assassination is the equivalent of another country taking out the director of the CIA, secretary of defense, and shadow secretary of state all rolled into one. Whether the United States agrees or not, Iran sees this as an act of war. And the regime will respond at a time, place, and manner of its choosing, because the one thing it fears more than a conflict with the United States is backing down in the face of such a direct challenge to the regime.

Reacting to Suleimani’s demise, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that “forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.” Revenge could come in many forms. Iran could greenlight Shiite militia groups to significantly escalate rocket and roadside bomb attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq, and to organize additional protests and assaults against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Iranian proxies may target the few hundred American forces protecting oil fields in eastern Syria or direct attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Iran could fire ballistic missiles at U.S. facilities in Iraq or the Persian Gulf, ramp up the sabotage of international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, launch additional missile or drone attacks against critical energy infrastructure in the region, or encourage Lebanese Hezbollah or Palestinian militants to attack Israel. Tehran could orchestrate terrorist attacks against Americans or U.S. interests in the region, as it did in the 1980s in Beirut and in 1996 at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, or plot an attack inside the United States, as it attempted to do in 2011 against the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Or Iran could use its increasingly sophisticated cybercapabilities to strike at the U.S. homeland.

If Iranian retaliation draws more American blood, it will prompt other U.S. counterpunches aimed at, in the words of a recent statement from the Pentagon, “deterring future Iranian attack plans.” And Iranian leaders, facing additional U.S. strikes against their forces and interests, will face a similar calculus. Neither side may want an all-out war, but each increment of escalation and counterescalation will have its own defensive logic—and it is hard to see a clean escape from this spiraling vortex.

Even if the sides avoid a regional war, there will likely be other profound collateral consequences for the killing of Suleimani. Iraqi outrage at the strike could soon make the U.S. position in the country untenable. Caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has already denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and an act of aggression against the Iraqi people, and it would not be surprising if the Iraqi parliament demanded the full withdrawal of U.S. forces in the coming days. Trump, long a skeptic of underwriting “ungrateful” allies, may actually leap at the opportunity to pull troops out. The result might appeal to Trump’s base, but it would also set the stage for Iran to further expand its influence in Iraq while making it more difficult to check a resurgence of the Islamic State.

On the nuclear front, too, Iran is likely to ramp up its provocations. Over the past year, in response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord, Tehran has incrementally restarted elements of its nuclear program. As tensions with the United States heighten, more dramatic steps, including the resumption of much higher levels of uranium enrichment, are likely. And as Iran gets closer and closer to the capability to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon—and the prospects for a diplomatic solution fade—yet another path to a military confrontation with the United States or Israel will emerge.

Given these dangers, the administration needs to level with the American people about its strategy and its plans. It needs to provide the intelligence it used to justify the strike and explain how it will mitigate the myriad risks emanating from it. In another administration, there would also be a coherent national security process to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel and diplomats across the Middle East, prepare for possible civilian evacuations, harden critical infrastructure in the region and at home against Iranian-backed terrorism or cyberattacks, and ready U.S. forces and synchronize public messaging to both deter and manage escalation with Tehran. To date, Trump hasn’t shown the temperament or patience for such deliberation, and his administration has never consistently demonstrated these competencies. Now, because of the fateful decisions Trump has made, the administration is facing by far its greatest test. And as the United States dives head first into increasingly dark waters, there is a very real danger the administration is navigating blind.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Twitter: @ColinKahl

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