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US assassinated an Iranian general — what comes next?

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The U.S. military strike that killed Iranian IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani takes a major anti-U.S. force off the battlefield — but is likely to have explosive consequences. Already, Iran has characterized the strike as an “act of war.” In Qom, Iran — considered a holy city in Shia Islam — a literal red flag has been raised, which in Shiite tradition serves as a call to avenge one who was killed unjustly.

The war drums against Iran have long been beating in Washington. But today, war drums against America being pounded in Tehran have more support from average Iranians who are rallying around their flag. Things are escalating, and the U.S. should take action to de-escalate.

While previous “we got him” moments centered on terror leaders unaffiliated with a formal state — Saudi-born Osama bin Laden who led al Qaeda and Iraq-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who led ISIS — a key difference is that Soleimani was part of an internationally recognized government, specifically of a branch the U.S. recently designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

For many in the U.S., Soleimani’s death gave way to a sense of unease, raising questions including, Who was this guy? Are we at war? Am I going to be drafted? Is this the start of World War III

Nobody can know what the future holds, but a direct conventional war between the U.S. and Iran is more likely today than it was before the strike. The ball is now in Iran’s court. How they respond — whether via cyber, proxies, drones, or other means, likely asymmetric —is unpredictable but a near certainty.

Then, the U.S. will be faced with a choice between walking back two years of escalation, which has failed to moderate Iran’s behavior, or escalating further and risking a catastrophic, costly, endless war.

A U.S. invasion of Iran would be a disaster, and a majority of Americans — who also rightly view the Iraq War as a significant blunder — recognize it. Iran has more than three times the population Iraq had in 2003, and its territory is nearly four times larger than Iraq’s. While easily traversable deserts define Iraq’s terrain, Iran is characterized as defined by mountains, the steppe, and even forested areas. 

Religiously, Iraq is a divided country while Iran has a considerable Shia majority and a much more unified population—especially under the “maximum pressure” campaign, which has done more to empower hardliners and erodes moderates in the country’s political debate. 

To sum this up, war with Iraq was a disaster—war with Iran would be worse.

In the short term, the pathways to de-escalation in the fallout of killing an Iranian general are narrower. However, our European allies may be able to mediate some short-term détente that freezes things before they get worse. But even that would require the Trump administration to recognize that tearing up the JCPOA and launching an economic war on Iran brought us to the precipice of a war, a conflict President Trump says he doesn’t want since it would likely end his presidency.

The Middle East is a turbulent region of the world, but the question of regional “stability” is separate from U.S. security. It would demonstrate true wisdom to withdraw our forces from harm’s way, rather than send additional troops in who will, by being in the area, be more vulnerable than they ever were on U.S. soil — all for no security or prosperity payoff for the American people.

After the strike that killed Soleimani, the U.S. advised American citizens to leave Iraq, an acknowledgment the recent action made Americans less safe. This is true not only for the American tourists in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also for the American troops and contractors stationed in Baghdad, Erbil, and other locations, potentially globally.

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Trump declared, “great nations do not fight endless wars.” He was right, and his criticism of regime change wars was one of the things that boosted his popularity and set him apart from other candidates running for president in 2016. The larger truth is these wars weaken the United States by running up our national debt and distracting from more pressing problems at home. They fundamentally undermine U.S. national interests.

It’s impossible to reconcile this talk with the escalatory actions executed by the U.S. that more deeply entangle the U.S. in the Middle East, a region of limited and diminishing strategic importance.

A full military withdrawal from the region is the best option. Any credible anti-U.S. terror threats should be countered through targeted raids, not permanent occupations.

Rather than permanent garrisons that put U.S. troops in harm’s way for the benefit of other nations, the U.S. should move its presence offshore.

The forever war will drag on unless we leave, regardless of how many times Trump uses rhetoric about ending endless wars. Prioritizing U.S. interests and putting America first requires not needlessly sacrificing American blood and treasure. U.S.-Middle East policy deserves a fresh start, not a new war.

Michael R. Hall is the communications manager of Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelryhall

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