On a Knife Edge

The assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the United States is hard to understand as a political maneuver. In his desire to put “maximum pressure” on Iran and contain its military ambitions in the Middle East, the Trump administration has attempted a risky move, bringing with it the potential for open war between the two countries.

There’s no doubt that Soleimani has blood on his hands. The head of the Quds force (the elite unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) coordinated attacks that brought about close to 600 American deaths, in Iraq in particular. As the principal architect behind expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East, Soleimani was involved with training or arming Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria to the benefit of Bashar Assad’s regime, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Lashing out at a strategic target of such importance has numerous consequences but not the effect the Trump administration anticipates. Soleimani is a key player, but a force like Quds will likely have an eager replacement ready to take up the fight.

Did Washington expect to contain Tehran? Instead, the strike on Gen. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of an Iraqi pro-Iranian paramilitary organization, has led to an explosion of anger and calls for revenge. Iran has already announced the resumption of its nuclear program, and the military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, has promised reprisals against American military targets. This is the reason American President Donald Trump hit back with a veiled threat to attack 52 Iranian sites, including cultural sites—a reference to the 52 American citizens taken hostage in Tehran in 1979. In September last year, it was American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s turn to call the bombing of the Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia an “act of war.”

The leaders of both countries confirmed that they want to avoid open war, but carry out “acts of war” one after the other. In the wake of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 from the nuclear deal, any movement on either side can be summed up in one word: escalation.

The agreement framing the development of the Iranian nuclear sector, one of Barack Obama’s greatest achievements, irritates Trump enormously. On the one hand, it doesn’t prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and on the other, the gradual lifting of sanctions once again gives Iran leeway to pursue its regional expansion in the Middle East.

The agreement had the virtue of providing an unprecedented diplomatic framework for Tehran and Washington to iron out their differences. In going back on its signature [on the agreement], the United States has denied itself this channel of communication. Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, a mixture of economic sanctions and acts of deterrence, seeks to bring Iran back to the negotiating table in order to reach a better agreement. This policy has failed and now threatens world peace.

The aerial strike against Soleimani and al-Muhandis took place in Iraq, violating the country’s national sovereignty. The Iraqi parliament, infiltrated by pro-Iran factions, will now be under pressure to expel the 5,200 American soldiers stationed in Iraq. Ultimately, it’s the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group that will be compromised. Not to mention that those militias supported by Tehran, including Hezbollah, will be tempted, in their turn, to target U.S. interests and citizens.

It’s hard to see how this incident will end well. One of the essential terms of deescalation would be a return to multilateralism and international cooperation, not exactly Trump’s cup of tea when you consider that before the aerial strike, the president had warned neither Congress nor his allies. The justifications then given afterwards were vague, speaking of an imminent, but ill-defined, threat.

Elected representatives, in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate, should remain vigilant in the hope of bringing an end to this major crisis. To allow moderate voices to be heard within the Iranian regime, there must be the same option in Washington. Congress must force Trump to listen to reason. His “maximum pressure” strategy could lead to maximum disaster.

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