Will Trump's Actions Bring War with Iran?

Small “d” democracy

By Mark Lurinsky

There are two likely reasons we are not in a full-blown war with Iran in the wake of Donald Trump’s assassination of General Qassim Soleimani, neither of which the president can take any particular credit for: First, the leaders of the Islamic Republic seem to have been careful to limit their immediate reprisals to targets that would result in a low number of U.S. casualties.[1] Second, the Tehran regime stonewalled and lied for three critical days before admitting responsibility for the accidental shooting down of a civilian Ukrainian airliner with 176 people aboard, and the revelation of its cover-up attempt caused a massive new wave of internal protest and also canceled out much of the sympathy the Islamic Republic had received from the world community in the immediate aftermath of the assassination; the fallout from that incident further limited the regime’s options for violent moves. Only time will tell if additional reprisals from Iran and/or Trump will further escalate the conflict.

The Trump administration has supplied only meager, self-serving and perpetually shifting explanations about its decision to kill Soleimani, who reportedly functioned as the second highest leader of Iran. The official accounts have raised many more questions than they have answered.[2] Unable to put to rest the public’s skepticism about his violent escalation of the long-simmering conflict, Trump finally resorted to claiming that “it doesn’t really matter” if any threat to American personnel was imminent before the January 3 strike on the general. 

Iranian General Qassem Soleimani

The assassination has had some important consequences:

  • 3,500 more American troops are now in harm’s way.
  • Iran may now choose to pull out all the stops in resuming its nuclear weapons program.
  • A major fissure has developed between the U.S. and its allies.

Americans are left to question whether this killing was a legitimate and necessary act of self-defense or a rash and dangerous outburst from an out-of-control president.[3]

Within three days of the strike on Soleimani, the Iraqi parliament voted to demand all U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq. The possibility of a rapid departure of Americans from Iraq may sound like a positive for the U.S. service members immediately involved, but on the day of the parliament’s vote, the international coalition to stop a resurgence of the terror group ISIS was forced to suspend its training operations in the north of Iraq to avoid involvement in any further U.S.-Iranian confrontations, and this disruption arguably could make America and the world less safe in the near term. 

U.S. allies Canada, Denmark, and Germany, who had forces in the area supporting the mission against ISIS terrorists, were also kept in the dark about the decision to attack Soleimani, with the Associated Press concluding, “There was no sign that any had been warned by the Trump Administration of the drone strike.”[4] Another alarming consequence of Trump’s abandonment of diplomacy in this crisis may well be that it may benefit Russia. Vladimir Putin received official visits from both French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel in the immediate wake of Soleimani’s death, with the Russian president claiming that his foreign policy represented an alternative to U.S. escalation and chaos in the Middle East.[5]

Two Years of Beating the War Drum

Trump’s buildup toward military conflict with Iran dates back to March 2018, when he removed his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, reportedly after heavy lobbying from Iran’s regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Shortly afterward, Trump unilaterally took the U.S. out of the historic Obama-era anti-nuclear pact with Iran, a step both Tillerson and then–Defense Secretary James Mattis had warned against.[6]  This Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which the European Union as well as Russia and China supported and still support, did not restrain Iran from a variety of aggressive activities unrelated to its nuclear program. But it was hugely important since it eliminated Iran’s stockpiles of medium enriched uranium and drastically cut its other uranium supplies and enrichment facilities.  Abandoning these crucial protections while adopting a policy of “maximum pressure” through extreme sanctions was always an ill-advised policy. Many observers point out that Trump has not articulated any strategy for either a real negotiated peace or “winning” a massive war with a country of 83 million people.

Us Troops in Baghdad 

Red Meat for the Base

A president who is actually a strong, stable leader would want to keep Americans as informed as possible about the possibility of a truly unavoidable major war and give our international allies maximum evidence about the nature of the alleged threat to forge unity for what might follow.  Instead, Trump’s public stance has been about firing up his base by way of ethno-nationalism and Islamophobia against Iranians and Middle Easterners in general. Examples of this include the President’s repeated boasts that he would attack Iran’s cultural sites­—a threat later quietly disowned by others in his administration— and his recent embrace of the disgraced former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was a Christmas guest at Mar-a-Lago.[7] In one of his more bizarre acts of schoolyard bullying, Trump responded to our Iraqi allies by declaring that if U.S. forces were expelled from their country, his administration would impose sanctions on Iraqis too “like they’ve never seen before.  It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

Vice President Mike Pence has also thrown gasoline on the fire by claiming, together with Trump and without evidence, that General Soleimani, certainly a dangerous, destructive figure and a ruthless adversary to the U.S. military presence in Iraq and adjacent countries, was somehow also responsible for the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Outrageously, Pence also tried to blame Soleimani, an adherent of Iran’s Shia branch of Islam, for the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by a terrorist group originating among Saudi Arabian Sunni fanatics.[8] The falsehoods and hysteria promoted by the administration with respect to Iran are reminiscent of the toxic Bush/Cheney buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq 17 years ago, with two major exceptions: (1) President George W. Bush took some pains to publicly maintain that his attack on Saddam Hussein’s forces was not directed toward Iraqis or Muslims in general; and (2) the domestic political coalition for Bush’s misadventure initially included a great many self-styled neoconservatives and even liberals, many of whom genuinely believed that the Iraq war could expand democracy in the Middle East. There is no such fig leaf of idealism in Trump’s messaging.

Giving Peace a Chance

Recent polling suggests that public opinion on Trump’s handling of relations with Iran is now split but skeptical, with an ABC News/Ipsos survey conducted January 10-11 finding 52% felt “less safe” after the strike on Soleimani.  There are several promising initiatives by Democrats in Congress to put limits on the administration’s dangerous drift, including an amendment sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) to repeal the discredited 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq (AUMF) that recently passed the House by a significant margin and drew in 11 Republican votes and a resolution that passed the Senate 55-45 on February 13 which prohibits further hostilities with Iran without Congressional approval[9].

Few believe that the repressive government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is trustworthy.  But, as former Secretary of State John Kerry points out, “Trump’s foreign policy requires an unreliable regime in Iran to behave reasonably to save Mr. Trump from himself” and let us all escape another endless war. 

BlueWaveNJ Members At The No War Iran Vigil In Montclair

Unexpectedly constructive outcomes have sometimes followed similarly bleak moments of our history:  Less than a year after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world’s foremost nuclear powers to the brink, John F. Kennedy, a more thoughtful leader than our current president, joined with USSR premier Nikita Krushchev in the landmark partial nuclear test ban treaty that proved to be the first step in 30 years of détente. 

The framework of the Iran anti-nuclear pact, which Trump’s administration admitted was effective before he unilaterally withdrew from it, still exists as a potential starting point for a fresh chance for peace if our own country can muster the political will. Another reason to sustain some optimism relates to the Iranian people: As the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, that “when we don’t muck things up, ordinary Iranians are among the most pro-American people in the [Middle East] region.” 

Let’s be clear, however.  Trump’s foreign policy moves are wildly erratic and therefore especially dangerous. [10]  Also, if there was still any doubt, there are now no more “adults in the room” in the Donald Trump administration on matters of war and peace.[11]  Keep your marching boots dry and your peace signs ready.

Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968. He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.

Under the blog title Small “d” democracy, Mark will continue to weigh in on the current issues that define how our country can become a more just, equal, and democratic society.

[1] While Trump has publicly minimized the injuries to U.S. personnel, we have learned over the ensuing weeks that more than 100 American service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, a serious condition that can result in long-term complications. This should make us wary of the risk of even “closely calibrated” military moves by adversaries in moments of crisis.

Bloomberg, among other media, concluded that Tehran’s reprisal missile strikes on U.S. positions in Iraq on January 7, which its foreign minister called “proportionate measures in self-defense” may have been deliberately targeted at less populated areas of the sprawling Al Asad base. Moreover, the Iraqi prime minister’s office said it had received verbal notice from Iran before the strike, which, predictably, became known to the American command and allowed time for U.S. troops to take cover.

[2] New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, points out that the classified briefing to key members of Congress that took place only after the attack (rather than beforehand, the norm for major military actions undertaken by prior presidents), didn’t answer three key questions: “What was the specific intelligence that led you to believe there was an imminent threat? What was the nature of the threat, i.e., the targets? What was the specific intelligence that would lead you to believe that eliminating Soleimani alone would eliminate the threat?”


Secretary of Defense Mark Esper added to the mystery over the motivation for Trump’s strike by telling CBS’s Face the Nation that he hadn’t seen any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Trump had publicly claimed two days earlier. In fact, CNN has reported that “State Department officials involved in U.S. embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific U.S. embassies.” If there had been such an imminent specific threat, it’s hard to imagine why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as a congressman from Kansas was particularly vocal in attacking Hillary Clinton over the loss of Americans at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, would not have taken any special measures to secure such diplomatic facilities in the immediate days surrounding the attack on Soleimani.


[3] A legally justified military act of self-defense under the United Nations Charter and the International Court of Justice, which presumably are the standards by which other nations will judge this action, refers back to recognized principles that date back almost two centuries: “A necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice, and no moment of deliberation,” which, furthermore, must be proportional. However, as the New York Times reported on January 4, Pentagon officials presented Trump with a “menu” of options to respond to a rocket attack attributed to an Iranian-backed group that killed an American civilian contractor at an Iraqi base a week earlier, and Trump unexpectedly chose the most extreme one. Other reporting suggests that Trump had provisionally targeted the general for death seven months earlier but was awaiting an incident in which an American was killed to provide a public rationale.


A separate but related issue is whether by deliberately killing Soleimani, who was both a military and political leader of a sovereign state with which we are not at war, while he was traveling within another sovereign state, may have violated both a pre-existing U.S. executive order against assassinations as a tool of policy, and a federal criminal law against “murder or manslaughter of a foreign official, official guests, or internationally protected person,” as Vicki Divoll, former assistant general counsel for the CIA, argues.


From the standpoint of the Iraqis, Soleimani’s presence at Baghdad’s airport as an invited guest at the hour of Trump’s targeted drone attack on him was also no small matter. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, then head of Iraq’s government, told its parliament that he was scheduled to meet with Soleimani on that morning, and that Soleimani was supposed to carry a message from Iran in response to a message from Saudi Arabia seeking to calm tensions in the region. If Mahdi’s account of the exchange of messages is even partly true, this means that Trump’s killing of the general will go down in history as a ghastly crime against peace for that reason alone.


[4]Defense Secretary Esper refused to say whether Trump had warned allies before the strike.”


[5] Putin is hardly an honest broker in this situation, since Russia, along with China, opened joint military exercises with Iran in late 2019, and the Kremlin has been the major collaborator with Iran in propping up the brutal Assad regime in Syria and committing multiple acts of carnage against Syrian civilians.


[6] Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the President’s preferred allies in the Middle East from the beginning of his administration, have sought to increase their control of the region at the expense of rival countries, both by pressing Trump to rip up the anti-nuclear agreement with Iran and by economically and militarily isolating the small Gulf state of Qatar, with whom they have nursed a number of disputes. Reports have suggested that Tillerson may have particularly angered these monarchies by actively intervening to end their blockade of Qatar. The U.S. has some 10,000 troops based in Qatar, but Qatar also maintains good relations with Iran.


A key figure who acted as an intermediary from the Emiratis and Saudis against Tillerson was the Lebanese-American George Nader, a convicted sex offender who is also cited in the Mueller Report for having arranged a secret meeting in the Seychelles Islands during the Trump transition between a high-level finance associate of Vladimir Putin and Erik Prince, the former head of the Blackwater private security firm. In pressing the case for the Saudis and the Emiratis, Nader partnered with Elliot Broidy, the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, who, like Nader, has a variety of financial interests in these Arab Gulf states. An as-yet-not-well-explored component of this Middle East connection is possible personal financial interests of Jared Kushner and others within the Trump family circle with the Emiratis and the Saudis.


[7] According to a Daily Beast account, Trump has also spoken positively of taking Gallagher and two other convicted or accused war criminals on the campaign trail with him. Fellow SEALS came forward to describe Gallagher in court-martial testimony as “evil” and “toxic” for his actions against civilians and captive combatants in Iraq.


[8] Pence asserted on January 3 that Soleimani “assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists” who carried out the September 11 attacks. Rolling Stone, which investigated these remarks and debunked the Trump/Pence claims about Benghazi, points out that “Pence’s math is muddled of course. There were 19 hijackers on 9/11—and all but one of them were from Iran’s religious and geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.” Moreover, the claims of Iranian involvement in 9/11 were explicitly discredited by the 9/11 commission.


There appears to be little doubt that General Soleimani, as the long-time leader of the regime’s Quds Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guard specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations outside its borders, did have major personal responsibility for much of the brutal bloodshed in the Middle East region, including propping up the murderous Assad government in Syria, but he also tacitly cooperated with U.S. forces in Iraq against the ISIS terror group when it was in Iran’s interest. The significance of his death to the nation of Iran—where he is considered by many beyond the ruling circle as a cult hero and now a martyr—is not complete without some appreciation of the history of Iran and Soleimani’s relation to it. Dexter Filkins, who covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the New York Times, writes in the New Yorker that “Soleimani’s vision of the region was formed in the nineteen-eighties, during the Iran-Iraq War, which left more than a million people dead and for which Iranians, not entirely without reason, blamed the U.S. and its allies.” The veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker, who served various administrations as ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries, told Filkins, “Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight.”


[9] Getting a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress to restrain Trump from more escalation with Iran is none-the-less unlikely in the short term, due to Mitch McConnell’s heavy grip on the Senate agenda and the unwillingness of even anti-war Republican voices to call out Trump’s personal role in the war build-up. Mike Lee of Utah, one of two outspoken Republican anti-war libertarians in the Senate, who initially made headlines by publicly complaining that the administration’s private briefing of lawmakers after the Soleimani assassination was “insulting and demeaning,” has nonetheless been happy to claim that Trump isn’t an interventionist, while Rand Paul (R-KY) the other, “still hopes for the best” from the president. Moreover, their voices are being heavily drowned out in the GOP caucus by the long-standing war hawks like Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Trump golfing partner Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who was briefed ahead of time about the strike on Soleimani while at Mar-a-Lago and has given it strong support.


[10] One of the more persuasive theories of why Trump jumped to the assassination option in the recent tension is that he has developed an obsession about appearing weak, which kicked into high gear when Iraqi protestors at one point surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “If you’re Donald Trump, it’s always 1979,” writes Stephen Metcalf in a recent New York Times opinion piece referring to the 444-day standoff at the U.S. diplomatic complex in Tehran that President Carter resolved by negotiations that were completed only after he had lost reelection to Ronald Reagan. Trump carries Carter “everywhere, as a kind of anti-self. If Mr. Carter was deliberative, Mr. Trump must be reactive.” Trump also reportedly admitted to associates that he felt under pressure to attack Soleimani from certain Republican senators he viewed as important to his defense in the impeachment trial, according to a January 9 Wall Street Journal report. The chain of events surrounding Soleimani’s killing also brings to mind the warning some months ago from Representative Seth Mouton (D-MA), an Iraq War veteran, that Trump is “a weak commander in chief—who doesn’t have the credibility to say no to war because he dodged serving in war himself.”


[11] By several accounts, Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were the loudest voices in the room urging Trump to follow his own worst instincts and order the Soleimani killing. The rest of the current top national security officials are notable only for their constant professions of loyalty to the president and their reluctance to consult in advance with others inside or outside the administration who might have diverse views. There is a strong argument that Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in December 2018, had played a particularly important role in restraining Trump’s most erratic impulses by taking certain options off the table while he was in the administration. This included both the president’s first go at an unplanned pullout of U.S. forces in Syria (which Trump then doubled down on in 2019 after Mattis left) and his idea to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017.