Trump, the dragon slayer
The assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani – who was in charge of clandestine operations for the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) – was largely a chronicle of a death foretold once the Trump administration designated the IRG as a “foreign terrorist organization” in April 2019. It was the first time Washington had applied the term to an entire government agency.
But the deeper problem is that there is no longer anyone inside the administration who is capable of countering Trump’s penchant for “America First” and “peace through strength” unilateralism and the excessive use of force — and who can advocate for the need for full U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.
By killing a generally popular Iranian military leader, Trump has unleashed forces in Iran and in the region that will prove very difficult to manage. As Trump’s actions have handed the Iranian Revolutionary Guards the upper hand in domestic Iranian politics (leading the IRG to strike two U.S. military bases in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination), it will prove even more difficult for rational diplomacy to prevail. There will be very little room for any Iranian official to openly talk to Washington so Trump can cut a deal as he appeared to proffer in his January 8 address.
After the Soleimani assassination, Iran stated that it will no longer abide by JCPOA restrictions on nuclear enrichment and the number and type of centrifuges it can develop. Iranian mullahs will now attempt to galvanize the populations in both Iraq and Iran against anyone defined as “pro-American.” The Revolutionary Guards have called for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq. The interim Iraqi parliament has likewise voted for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq in a non-binding vote in which significant numbers of Kurdish and Sunni representatives were not present.
In the meantime, the Pentagon has had to suspend operations against ISIS to prevent its 5,200 troops from being attacked by pro-Iranian groups and militias. Should the U.S. and allied forces withdraw, it would escalate domestic social tensions between Sunni and Kurds against the Shiite majority government, given the probability that Iranian forces will not also withdraw.
This situation will augment the real risks of renewed civil war in Iraq, and the corresponding rise of ISIS or related pro-Sunni groups, coupled with renewed demands for Kurdish secession. And if the U.S. does limit its force presence in Iraq to concentrate on Iran or elsewhere, it appears doubtful that NATO – which is concerned primarily with Russia – will be able to pick up the pieces as Trump appeared to demand in his January 8 address.
As tensions mount over time, Tehran will attempt to strengthen its economic and military ties with China and Russia. Ironically, one of the major reasons the Trump administration had dumped the 2015 Iran JCPOA nuclear accord in May 2018 was to prevent Iran from joining the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Yet Iran has subsequently strengthened ties with both Russia and China.
Iran’s $400 billion energy deal with China in 2019 permits Beijing to station up to 5,000 security personnel in Iran to protect its investments, with more to guard supply lines, including in the Gulf. In December China, Russia and Iran conducted joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman in an effort to deepen their naval cooperation. What would happen if the Pentagon wants to block efforts by China, Russia, India and other countries to trade with – or somehow assist – Iran?
Trump’s efforts to build up U.S. and NATO military capabilities – and forge a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi alliance versus Iran increasingly backed by a China-Russia axis – has begun to further polarize the already explosive Middle East, as well as eastern Europe and other regions, while instigating a new military and arms build-up.
For its 2020 budget, the Pentagon has been promised a massive increase in advanced weaponry and in “war budget” funding for Overseas Contingency Operations — a tremendous rise from $69 billion to $165 billion that could expand the “forever wars.” The 2020 bill is expected to add at least 30,000 troops, and thus bring the active duty and reserve force to a strength of about 2.14 million. The Pentagon’s new budget, rightfully, boosts military salaries; yet Trump also hopes that higher salaries will buy him votes.
By killing Soleimani, Trump has executed what many of his Christian conservative and pro-Netanyahu base believe is the embodiment of “evil.” In claiming that “God is on our side,” Trump has become a latter-day Saint George, the dragon slayer. By fulfilling the demands of his domestic base, Trump hopes these groups will support him for the presidency in November.
While it is often argued that a president can lose an election by going to war, this is not certain. By showing “tough” leadership with respect to presumed “threats” that impact American interests from abroad, Trump hopes to divert attention away from his illegal actions at home that have led to his impeachment, and then win the November 2020 election.
While he claims to prefer brinkmanship over war, the president can now claim after Soleimani’s assassination that if Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program and support for terrorism do eventually impel the U.S. to go to war, the Pentagon’s surgical strikes will cause very few American or Iranian civilian deaths. Yet Iran will not go down as easily as did Iraq in 2003: A full scale U.S. war with Iran would cause death, destruction and chaos throughout the entire Middle East and beyond.
The only hope for regional and global peace requires pursuit of U.S.-Iran reconciliation. This can be achieved by immediately de-escalating tensions; by eventually bringing the 2015 Iran Nuclear accord (JCPOA) back to the bargaining table, albeit in a new and strengthened form; and by fully supporting peace negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that could include implementation of a regional Missile Technology Control Regime.
The Trump administration will accordingly need to fully engage in bilateral and multilateral diplomatic trade-offs through United Nations-backed contact group diplomacy that is intended to find ways to resolve a large number of regional conflicts that directly or indirectly involve Iran.
In his January 8, 2020 speech, Trump appeared to call on Russia and China and the Europeans to join with the U.S. in the effort to stop Iran from supporting “terrorism” and to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. But to bring China, Russia and the Europeans on board, Trump will need to abandon his unilateral and militarist “America First” and “Peace through Strength” doctrines.
In short, Trump will need to reverse course and seek peace through diplomatic compromise — if the fiery breath of the Green Dragon that the president has ordered slain is to ultimately stop spreading wildfires throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Hall Gardner is professor and co-chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department of the American University of Paris. He is author of “World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism.”