Trump has thrown the dice; now Tehran’s turn

Martin Jay
Kidnappings, assassinations and car bombings against the United States and its Israeli and Arab allies will be inevitable and perhaps timed to coincide with Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

The decision by US President Donald Trump to order an attack on Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani was not a mistake but a “correction” of his decision to back down following a drone attack in June. It’s also about a Twitter attack from Iran’s supreme leader.

Soleimani was assassinated January 3 in an American air strike in Baghdad. Very few people will understand how colossal a move the decision by Trump was and what the payback will be.

This strike is much bigger than anything Trump has done in the region. Geopolitical analysts wonder how it compares to his air strikes in Syria or his decision in May 2017 to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which has led to the crisis in the first place.

No comparison.

One could argue that the United States’ downing of an Iranian airliner in July 1988 in the Strait of Hormuz — a military blunder by a commander of an aircraft carrier who believed that an Iranian airliner was a fighter jet descending — also cannot compare.

Given that the decision to shoot down the civilian airliner was a genuine military misjudgement, it is worth noting what Iran’s response was: cold, calculated revenge against an American airliner, Pan Am Flight 103 six months later, three days before Christmas, packed full of Americans, including military personnel.

Iran’s revenge now will be equally calculated. It’s hard not to underestimate how powerful and how respected Soleimani was to the Iranians — and how feared he was by his enemies.

Any suggestion that a retaliation will be weighty and one that would show the world that “de-escalation,” which former British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher talks about, is unrealistic and we must consider the sheer speed of a statement by Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who spoke of avenging Soleimani’s death by “resistance fighters worldwide.”

That was a statement Nasrallah didn’t need clearance from Tehran to make.

During this period of high tension between Iran and US allies in the region, the assassination marks a sea change in Trump’s capricious and craven policies, which left Iraqis dancing in the streets. Something snapped. Perhaps the decision to order the strike against Soleimani was driven by the unprecedented tweet fired directly at Trump by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who claimed” “you (Trump) can’t do anything.”

It also makes analysts reflect on Trump’s decision to back down after Iran shot down a US drone last June, when, at the last moment, he pulled back, reportedly because of advice from US newscaster Tucker Carlson.

Trump may have miscalculated there because a strike against military installations to make the point to the Iranians that they crossed a line with the drone shooting would have been more effective because it would have made the Iranians reflect.

Now there will be no period of reflection. The Soleimani strike is so huge and has such egregious ramifications that revenge can be the only policy.

The question is whether Iran and the United States can hold back from crossing a line that leads to full-out war. Western commentators are right to argue that Iran will not want to go to war but the Iranians’ choice of retaliation is critical.

Kidnappings, assassinations and car bombings against the United States and its Israeli and Arab allies will be inevitable and perhaps timed to coincide with Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. Probably a war in the Middle East during an election campaign would not give Trump a boost but make him look foolish.

Could Trump win an election during a period in which body bags carrying the remains of US personnel were arriving from the Middle East?

For more than 20 years, Soleimani was the mastermind behind Iran’s activities across the Middle East and its real foreign minister when it came to matters of war and peace.

The BBC reported he was considered an architect of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war against rebels in Syria, the rise of pro-Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State and “many battles beyond.”

It is not so well known that he led Hezbollah’s war against Israel’s 2006 invasion from inside Lebanon itself.

Soleimani regularly taunted Trump on Twitter and made threats directly to him but it was not his tweets that were the deal-breaker.

Trump’s decision to give the assassination the green light in preference over a military strike against pro-Iran Iraqi units that were apparently planning attacks against US forces has taken the threat of a war to a higher level and should be seen more rationally as another chapter in the war with Iran since 1979.

The war has shifted from proxy to direct, which indicates that, despite reports to the contrary, Trump is ready for a hands-on war with Iran.

It also shows we are living in an era in which not only US foreign policy is conducted on a Twitter whim but is also guided by those of its foes. Watch carefully the reaction from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel for a clue as to whether this has galvanised Trump’s Iran strategy or left it compromised because the Soleimani strike places them — in particular, Riyadh — under a spotlight.

Martin Jay is an Associate Editor of Al Arab Publishing and has previously worked as a foreign correspondent in Beirut, Brussels and Nairobi in a career spanning over 30 years working for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, Sunday Times, DW, BBC and Reuters.

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