When US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iran’s top General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad near the capital’s international airport, he sent shockwaves across the Middle East.
It came after Trump was impeached just a few weeks ago by the Democrat-majority House of Representatives.
Iran vowed a powerful response to the assassination and Tehran’s retaliation came swiftly on Tuesday. But Iran’s bombing of two Iraqi military bases housing US forces did not kill any Americans despite Tehran’s claims to the contrary. The attacks created the impression that the Shia-majority country only attacked domestic face-saving, and does not want to escalate into a war with the world’s most powerful military.
“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense [sic] under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” wrote Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter.
If the US can get away with killing Iran’s most powerful general, who was widely regarded as the second most influential political figure after the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, then Trump might not be in a bad position domestically.
According to a senior administration official, who discussed the strike with the president, Trump thought that the attack would help him in the upcoming elections, assessing that Iran cannot “do anything too stupid”.
The weak Iranian retaliation, which was phoned into Iraqi officials, indicates that Tehran did not aim to kill anyone and has given the US president the essential political leverage he seeks.
From now until the elections, if there is no major escalation with Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, Trump can argue that he took a dangerous man out of the region without losing American lives or dollars.
“If Iran doesn’t become a disaster, and the economy is good, Trump is untouchable in November. Trump has, in effect, bet his presidency on being able to contain an unstable Iran,” Dan Eberhart, a wealthy Republican Party supporter, viewed.
Trump can say that what he did was something previous presidents — be it George W Bush or Barack Obama — could not dare to do, fearing that a move like that would have led to a regional war.
What is the US strategy?
While the strike appeared to be a successful decision on Trump’s side, Democrats and other critics of the president still questioned the wisdom of the attack.
“Their argument is that it was operationally critical for self-defence and there was an imminent threat driving this action. It does not seem to have been part of a broader strategy,” a European official said.
“There are signs of seeking to retrofit the strategy after the fact and now talking up the importance of an effective military deterrent,” the official concluded.
The Trump administration argues that the US created an effective deterrent against Iran with the strike. Still, critics say that Iran shows no signs of withdrawal from their current station in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.
Instead, Tehran demands Washington completely pull out from the region, increasing the anxiety of US allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“The whole question of are we leaving Iraq or not speaks to absence of a normal, rigorous [National Security Council] co-ordination process [and] lack of any consideration of the second or third order effects,” said Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official under Obama, referring to the confusion over a US withdrawal, which the Iraqi parliament and prime minister demanded after the assassination.
This week, the Pentagon sent a letter to Baghdad saying that it will act in accordance with the Iraqi demand for the US pullout. But Washington quickly reversed the Pentagon stance stating that the letter was released by mistake. Now Trump says troops will be there as long they are needed.
Despite his impulsive and erratic behaviour, which seems to make everyone nervous except the president himself, Trump appears to play a game of unpredictability, aiming to leave others in the lurch.
Trump, a successful businessman, has long believed that his unpredictability is his most potent and powerful strength in a crisis like the latest one.
“Everyone is scrambling now to decipher Trump’s intentions with the fear being that this may have been his parting shot before exiting the region completely and leaving US allies to fend for themselves,” said Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers.