The current standoff between the United States and Iran is a pivotal time in history. Following the US killing of Kataib Hezbollah members in late December and subsequent American assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3, the region is poised to break out into a major escalation of violence. Leader of the Iraqi Shiite militia organization Popular Mobilization Abu Mahdi al Muhandis was also killed in the strike. Supporters of Trump’s action say he is taking the kind of decisive action that former President Barack Obama never did and standing up to America’s adversaries; opponents say Trump is going off half-cocked without a plan and putting the Middle East in danger of another disastrous conflict.
US Threatens Iran If They Hit Back
US President Donald Trump threatened to commit a number of war crimes if Iran retaliates to the US strikes, saying Washington will hit 52 specially selected cultural and high-value targets representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran in 1979. Meanwhile, Kataib Hezbollah has told Iraqis to clear away from US-held sites and bases in Iraq by Sunday evening, suggesting they could be preparing an assault.
What’s The Truth?
The truth is not black and white, nor is it able to be entirely summarized only from one aspect such as strategic, moral, political and economic. Morally speaking, Soleimani was responsible for grievous suffering in Syria, helping turn large areas of Aleppo into a husk and bearing responsibility for some of the horrific suffering of civilians. He also bears blame for pushing the policy of lethal responses to Iraqi protesters as well as helping kill American troops in Iraq. Over 1,500 Iranians were killed in 2019 alone for protesting against Iran’s regime. Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that Soleimani was an immensely capable soldier and strategist who had the ear of Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei and who helped crush ISIS and Al Qaeda. As millions of Iranians turn out on the streets to mourn Soleimani—some hoisting red Shia battle flags commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain—it would be a mistake to think that his assassination will be easily forgotten or that those mourning him are only doing so out of a sense of coercion or pressure from the state.
Strategically, hitting Soleimani is hard to fathom from a strict point of American national interest, since it will likely cause the already economically-squeezed Iranians to hit back via cyber attacks, proxies and destabilization of any governments in their orbit of power, worsening the current situation and leading to more assaults on American troops. Who does Soleimani’s death help? (Hint: not America). It helps the Gulf States, by putting a crack in the armor of the Shia crescent and Israel by weakening their Iranian adversary and pushing back on Iran’s attempt to openly expand and consolidate its influence in the region. Put simply: Trump’s puppet strings are being pulled by Gulf state actors and Israeli interests as well as the so-called “Deep State” within his own government who he constantly claims to oppose and who seem willing to bet that Iran will experience regime change if the current government is backed far enough into a corner and can’t provide security or necessities to its people.
Trump’s Hijacked Government
Quite apart from being a stalwart leader, Trump is a stuffed suit run by the Deep State he claims to hate. As renowned espionage writer John Le Carre put it in 2018, the Trump phenomenon was a “revolution led from above” from the start and his administration is being steadily “annexed by the CIA and the military complex.” This fact should concern any individual who feels uncomfortable with black funds being used to overthrow governments, targeted assassinations and unelected bureaucrats pulling the strings of the world’s most powerful military. Contrary to the claims of eager beaver establishment types and former spymasters like John Brennan—who like to go on the Rachel Maddow Show or give soliloquies about their precious principles and supposed patriotism—intelligence agencies do not always have simple national interest at heart, or at least not a straightforward path to safeguard their particular versions of it. Their concerns and strategies are not the same as Joe Public’s concerns.
While it’s possible that Trump and his administration are sleepwalking into a conflict with Iran, it’s more likely that Iran will hit back via asymmetric means: this could mean cyber attacks, diplomatic subversion of American interests and increased tempo of building anti-US political alliances and military drills, proxy attacks and bolstering Iranian-supported forces worldwide including in Iraq. If a conventional war happens in well-defended and well-prepared Iran it would be hundreds of times more damaging to America than the war with Iraq, which had already been starved and economically strangled for a decade by President Bill Clinton and decimated during the first Gulf War by the time President George W. Bush sent in US troops. Although conventional war remains unlikely, there is no reason to doubt the ferocity of the Iranian response and the increased suffering that is going to occur in the Middle East in the weeks and months ahead.