Are the US and Iran headed for war?
On Thursday night, President Donald Trump ordered the US military to assassinate Qassim Suleimani, a man widely considered Iran's second most important leader. Following the successful strike, fury has erupted in Iran. Threat levels have escalated in both Tehran and Washington. Are the US and Iran headed for war?
Let's take a step back.
Some will accuse Trump of "wagging the dog" to divert attention from the free flow of impeachment-related accusations against him in Washington and play tough guy for a political base that backs the use of American military power, particularly against enemies like Iran.
But before Americans indulge in a reflexive partisan response to this event, take a look at the man US forces just killed. Suleimani was leader of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. In that role, he has launched both military and terrorist attacks on Americans and US allies across the Middle East.
Trump, like many US presidents before him, has warned that the US will act forcefully against those who kill Americans. Suleimani and the Iran-backed militia groups he leads inside Iraq are responsible for recent attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad—and for a recent attack on US forces in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and wounded US soldiers.
In short, Trump drew a red line. Iran crossed that line, more than once. Iran's supreme leader tweeted that Trump "can't do anything" about it; Trump proved him wrong. Military machismo aside, Suleimani is a man of war who has killed Americans, and Iran walked directly and deliberately into this mess.
Yes, Donald Trump has run an often erratic foreign policy, including in the Middle East. (See the endless confusion about status of US forces in Syria. Heck, see the unilateral decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal that got this whole cycle of escalation started.) But his actions say he wants to bring US troops home from the Middle East, not kick off another endless Middle East war that will cost the US dearly in blood and treasure.
There's another reason to believe all-out war will be avoided: Iran's leaders are angry, but they aren't irrational. They know their regime can't survive an unlimited confrontation with a military superpower.
So, if neither Trump nor Iran's leaders want war, what is there really to fear from this event?
First, Iran must retaliate for the killing of Suleimani. This is a man who answered directly to Iran's supreme leader, not its president. This assassination, though it occurred inside Iraq, is a strike at the heart of Iran's regime.
Iran will probably attack US ships in the Persian Gulf, and there will be attacks on US soldiers inside Iraq. Trump has shown that, while he would rather reduce than expand the US presence in a region far less important to the US than it was even a decade ago, he will attack Iran. In other words, it's one thing to say that neither side wants war. That doesn't mean they won't stumble into one.
But the bigger problem for Trump may come from the government of Iraq. That's where the US and Iran have done most of their fighting in the recent past. Thanks to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is now a democracy. A raucous one, to be sure, but it's a genuine democracy. As in Iran, the clear majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims. And though Shia in Iraq and Iran don't always share common interests, the current Iraqi government is much more closely aligned with Iran than with any other government. It needs Iran's money and its military support, and while Western powers come and go from the Middle East, Iraq knows Iran will always be its neighbor and must be accommodated.
That's why the Iraqi government will now sharply increase pressure on US forces to leave Iraq once and for all. While Donald Trump might want to pull US troops back, he won't respond kindly if he believes they're being pushed.
Nor will Trump appreciate the hedging from some US allies. French President Emmanuel Macron appears to agree with Russia's Vladimir Putin, according to a statement from the Kremlin, that the killing of Suleimani "could seriously worsen the situation in the region." In addition, the Saudis, the closest US ally in the Arab Middle East, may begin to wonder how long Trump can be relied on to protect Saudi interests against Iranian attack if things get hot.
There's another worry inside Iraq. Suleimani was the leader of the various militia groups that have carried out many acts of violence there. Temporarily without a leader, and furious over his death, some of them may act on their own against US forces, with or without explicit backing from Tehran.
But the ultimate wildcard here is Donald J Trump. He is a commander in chief who acts impulsively. Reportedly, neither US congressional leaders nor US allies were warned in advance of the strike on Suleimani.
And this is an election year in the United States. Trump knows this is the year Americans will render their judgment on his presidency. No president wants to appear weak, but Trump has built his personal and political brand on toughness and decisive action. How will he respond when Iran kills more Americans? When Iraq sends him an eviction notice? When he hears criticism from Europe or from Democrats?
The cameras are on. The spotlight is hot. The world is watching.
No one rational wants all-out war. But that's no guarantee that, as the temperature rises, cooler heads will prevail.