President Trump draws his red line

Now that the dust has settled – literally and figuratively – on the Iranian response to the killing of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s mastermind for terrorist and other nefarious activity across the globe, it’s a good time to take stock of what has just happened, and what is likely to follow.

Whether one agrees with the elimination of General Qassem Soleimani as the correct means of signaling Iran, it was an important statement that a new red line is in effect. Proxy warfare – namely, a client organization taking hostile action in a manner hard to directly attribute to, but that everyone knows was ordered by, the patron – has always been convenient for these states.  

Now Iran (and presumably other self-alienated states) have been served notice that they will be held more directly accountable for the actions of their proxies, particularly when those actions result in the death of an American

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In its response to the death of Soleimani, Iran demonstrated extraordinary message calibration towards four audiences. 

First, the regime sent a clear signal to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE that Iranian investment in precision guided ballistic missiles paid off, and it can now hold U.S. military forces at risk nearly anywhere in the region. It also used that precision to send another signal, namely that, because no Americans were hurt in the demonstration, there is no need to start a war that Iran knows it cannot win. 

Second, any totalitarian regime fears its own people more than anything else. By exacting populist “hard revenge,” Iran’s leaders galvanized a large portion of their population, distracting them from the economic hardships they are experiencing due to sanctions. Because the Iranian regime controls its own media, it is able to leverage to their own needs the falsehood that many American casualties were inflicted in its attack.

Third, Iran at least attempted to signal to the international community that its actions were legitimate and legally bound to the concept of self-defense. Finally, Iran made clear to regional nations that they should not assist the U.S. in any retaliation, lest they become targets themselves – a capability that was clearly demonstrated during Iran’s attacks on the Saudi infrastructure last year – and that they should consider ejecting the U.S. military from their lands. 

President Trump had three choices in formulating his response. He hinted earlier in the week about a disproportionate response, albeit retreating from his threats to hit cultural sites. But this would have been unwise due to the likelihood both that it would dramatically expand the conflict, which neither nation desires, and that he would immediately lose all support from the international community. 

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Trump could also have responded proportionately, claiming that Iranian missiles constitute a new imminent threat, which could justify strikes against ballistic missile command nodes, manufacturing, storage and launch facilities. Carrying similar, though lower, risks than the disproportionate response, this might be legal, but would still be unwise.

Instead, the president prudently selected no military response. He belittled Iran’s attack and pointed to Iran “standing down” to suggest that his adversary capitulated. He claimed restraint and made an impassioned plea for other nations to join the U.S. in abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  

Other than its somewhat rambling nature, the president committed two unforced errors in his statement. First, he eliminated any possibility of bipartisan cooperation on the issue due to his pointed criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran.  Whether he is right or wrong in his accusation, this is no way to build consensus. Second, he missed an opportunity to even more clearly state to Iran that proxy warfare is over.

So, what happens next? It seems clear that any direct state-on-state action is over for the time being. But it is not clear whether Iran received the message on proxies. Shia militias in Iraq likely still want a piece of the action. Great powers don’t bluff: What will the administration do if such action results in one of those groups crossing the red line of killing or injuring an American?

Iran’s nuclear program is perhaps the more important question. Some commentators have suggested that this event may actually have provided a window of opportunity for the two sides to sit down and settle their differences, perhaps in an allusion to how the PyeongChang Winter Olympics may have opened the door to meetings between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea replaces its foreign minister: report Brent Budowsky: The patriotic duty of Senate Republicans US ambassador: 'I was personally surprised' North Korea did not send 'Christmas gift' MORE.  

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Do not be fooled by this. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stated it well in alluding to his continued search for the elusive “Iranian moderate.” Meanwhile, the list of Iranian demands from the U.S. administration is so daunting that no one, especially the Iranians, takes it seriously. Given the fraught relations between Iran and the United States, it is highly unlikely that any new nuclear deal, much less a rapprochement, will emerge any time soon. This 40-year conflict is nowhere closer to ending.

Finally, the most pressing question in the near term concerns the future of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament’s resolution regarding removal of all foreign forces from Iraqi soil, formulated by lame-duck Shia prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, is non-binding. Indeed, many probably only voted for it out of fear of Iranian reprisal; they actually do not want our forces to leave because they’re the only thing preventing ISIS from reconstituting its power.

We have seen this movie before. Therefore, the next couple of weeks will demand skilled diplomacy to ensure that combined efforts against the resurgence of the Islamic State, which remains a threat to the region and beyond, continue.

Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr. retired after serving as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.