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Trump’s Iranian precipice

Jan 14,2020 - Last updated at Jan 14,2020

MADRID — The new year began with yet another senseless foreign-policy decision by US President Donald Trump. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, who led the extraterritorial operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was a reckless, provocative and shortsighted move. Soleimani no doubt had an extremely pernicious influence in the Middle East. But he also was the leader of an armed branch of the Iranian state and enjoyed obvious personal popularity in his country, no matter how much Trump pretends otherwise.

Once again, the United States has acted excessively and set a dangerous precedent that its adversaries could use as an excuse to carry out similar operations. After the attack on Soleimani, Trump went so far as to threaten Iran repeatedly with the destruction of some of the country’s precious cultural sites, which would constitute a war crime. Although Trump seems to have reconsidered, his chronic impetuosity only highlights the lack of proper planning. The assassination of Soleimani was a sensationalist move, probably intended mainly for domestic consumption. Yet, in the long term, will it be effective?

Obviously, the answer will depend on Trump’s objectives vis-à-vis Iran. His administration has argued that the president’s drastic intervention will have a deterrent effect on the Iranian regime, to which Soleimani was an absolutely indispensable asset.

That assumption is questionable. Although Iran’s retaliation, in the form of missile attacks, against two Iraqi bases that house US troops, has so far been relatively subdued, the regime will stick to its guns. Nor can it be supposed that the loss of Soleimani, for all his importance, will be insurmountable for the regime, which has already named Soleimani’s trusted deputy as his successor.

The crux of the problem for the US is that it has no clear objectives regarding Iran, and hence no clearly defined strategy. In the Middle East, the US should have learned by now, that is a recipe for disaster. Today’s tensions do not imply that either Trump or Iran’s leaders are seeking war. Yet, on many occasions, states have stumbled into unwanted conflicts, especially when overconfidence makes them reckless. With his wild swings, Trump has managed to force not only Iran into a corner, which could prompt its leaders to adopt a more aggressive stance, but has also painted himself into one.

In the absence of a plan, it is no surprise that his administration constantly contradicts itself. Just when Iran was feeling the effects of a wave of brutally repressed domestic protests, the US relieved the pressure on the Iranian leadership. The huge crowds that turned out to mourn Soleimani do not lie. With Iran’s legislative elections just a few weeks away, the US offered the most conservative and anti-American elements in the country a golden opportunity.

Now, however, the spotlight has returned to the Iranian regime, owing to its own mistakes. After Iran’s leaders admitted, following three days of official denials, that Iranian missiles accidentally downed a Ukrainian civilian airplane, killing all 176 people aboard, the regime has once again become the target of popular outrage. The way the situation has played out serves as a reminder of Iranian citizens day-to-day troubles, which reflect the effects of domestic and foreign negligence.

The anti-regime protests roiling Iran are being echoed in other Middle Eastern countries where it wields notable influence. Overcoming their respective religious differences, both Lebanese and Iraqis have in recent months risen up against Iran’s meddling, much of which was orchestrated by Soleimani himself. But Trump ignored Napoleon’s famous maxim: “Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” Now, the Iraqi parliament has demanded, albeit symbolically, the withdrawal of US troops stationed in the country, which would be in Iran’s interest. The Trump administration has responded chaotically, by mistakenly announcing a troop withdrawal and then denying that a pullout was imminent.

Nonetheless, the possibility that Trump might end the US military presence in Iraq is not to be dismissed, even though the withdrawal would likely be rather undignified. For now, NATO forces fighting Daesh have suspended their operations, and some US allies have begun to evacuate their troops from Iraq.

But this does not mean that the US is leaving the Middle East: On the contrary, the number of American troops in the region has increased by 15,000 over the last six months. And while US energy dependence on the Middle East may have diminished, the “pivot” toward Asia, announced by the Obama administration, has not happened yet. Obviously, a larger conflict with Iran would hamper US efforts to contain China, America’s main global competitor.

To the long list of US follies must be added the perverse incentives that Trump has highlighted with his latest blow against Iran, which has raised an uncomfortable question: Would the US have acted the same way toward nuclear-armed North Korea? Iran fulfilled, to the letter, the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the main global powers, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and continued to fulfill it for a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the pact. And yet, while Trump held amicable meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his administration subjected Iran to crushing economic sanctions, treatment that is unlikely to encourage the Kim regime to stake its future on denuclearisation.

Although Iran has announced that it will now stop abiding by the JCPOA’s restrictions on its nuclear programme, it has not closed the door on the possibility of salvaging the deal. Moreover, US-Iranian tensions seem to have diminished slightly in recent days. But this may be a mirage: The downing of the Ukrainian plane has added a new element to the equation, which the Trump administration appears all too eager to exploit. Furthermore, Trump has not abandoned his intolerable demands and continues to pressure the JCPOA’s other signatories to abandon the agreement.

In the end, the US will have to recognise an indisputable reality: In situations as critical as this one, which was created unnecessarily, diplomacy is not an option, but an obligation. To avoid catastrophe, which should be the top priority for all parties involved, this is without doubt the road that must be taken.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary-general of NATO and foreign minister of Spain, is currently President of the Esade Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2020.

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