Trump's perilous delusions about Tehran
Because he doesn't want full-on war with Iran, Trump thinks he can engage in any insane provocation he likes without triggering one. Sooner or later, he's going to run out of luck.
The United States brazenly assassinated Iran's most senior security and intelligence official, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad on Thursday, in a dangerous and wildly illegal act of escalation with no discernible underlying policy goal.
For Iran hawks, Soleimani had become a boogeyman, a shadowy figure at whose feet we could place responsibility for the past 30 years of unmitigated American policy disaster in the Persian Gulf. Yet Soleimani, though an important operator, was not at all the cause of Iranian foreign policy behavior or America's regional struggles. His assassination proves that President Trump is under the sway of a very dangerous delusion: that because he personally does not want a full-on shooting war with Tehran, he can engage in any insane provocation he likes without triggering one.
Sooner or later, he is going to run out of luck.
The murder of Soleimani is only the most recent manifestation of the Trump administration's dangerous policy of escalation with Iran. The president has consistently brought his very worst instincts to the Persian Gulf and to the Iranian file in particular. He sees Iranian aggression and perfidy behind everything, and reads almost all policy decisions through the lens of a paranoid and implacable hostility to Tehran. He has obviously spent too much time alone in rooms with smooth-talking Saudi majesties and potentates eager to have the United States sign on to another long era of bottom-lining Gulf Arab sovereignty with American lives and treasure. Trump wants to bully the Iranians while simultaneously making it clear that he is terrified of an actual shooting war with Tehran.
Here more than anywhere else, his total lack of even a cursory understanding of the history of U.S.-Iranian relations or even a third-grader's grasp of Tehran's motivations and goals is painfully obvious. He simply cannot fathom why Iran acts the way it does, cannot conceptualize that the regime has its own security goals and needs, and believes that Iranian leadership will respond positively to the kind of loose gangster bravado that the president regards as sufficient to achieve the easy foreign policy 'wins' he and his team dream of tweeting about triumphantly.
Since even before he was inaugurated, the president has been bent on ratcheting up tensions with Iran, first by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and subsequently by imposing new sanctions designed to make life as miserable as possible for the Iranian people in the vain hope that they will succeed in overthrowing the regime. Thus far these provocations, which have undermined American diplomatic and negotiation efforts around the world by making America seem like an untrustworthy partner, have achieved precisely nothing in the policy realm. They have not forced Iran out of Syria or Yemen, or led to fresh nuclear negotiations, or led Tehran to loosen its grip on Iraq. If anything, President Trump's actions have made all of these problems infinitely worse.
The end result is a worst possible scenario. The president feels free to authorize policies and actions that make war much more likely, while also confident in America's ability to manage the escalation before it gets out of control. And the administration remain committed to the third-tier Beltway think tank fantasy of a popular uprising.
The cult-like belief in America's power to trigger regime change shared by key decision-makers like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who said on CNN that "We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq, but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom") is behind the administration's whole strategy-without-a-strategy policymaking in the Gulf. Killing Soleimani is part and parcel of the hallucinatory belief that dragging Iran back to the negotiating table and fomenting some kind of Bay of Pigs uprising against the dictatorship can be produced by the same bellicose set of American actions and the same blunt instruments of economic strangulation and political encirclement.
Behind all of these fiascos is a shared faith in America's insulation from any consequences. For too long, Americans have become accustomed to living in a world where the only restraint on American foreign policy adventurism is the threat of subsequent domestic political disaster. In a world without a serious military peer capable of threatening or even checking us, the only reason that we are not already at war with Iran is almost certainly the bar graph of President George W. Bush's approval ratings before and after the Iraq War. That godlike, near omnipotence has utterly warped our ability to distinguish between what it is possible to get away with and what is required for our national interests.
In other words, that the U.S. had the opportunity to assassinate Soleimani in Baghdad on Thursday does not necessarily mean that they should have done so. The greatest military power in the history of human civilization, the U.S. could easily kill any number of bad actors. We could vaporize the president of Brazil with a missile. We could drone strike the military commanders in charge of the Chinese concentration camps where more than a million Muslims are imprisoned. We could have killed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a thousand times in a thousand different ways.
It does not necessarily mean that we should do any of these things. For one thing, as the saying goes, you see the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. America's power is on the wane, and we should be doing everything in our power to encourage international cooperation and institution building rather than aggressively destroying our own reputation and needlessly alienating other decision-makers and publics. We might also recognize that the history of extra-judicial killings of foreign leaders is not a very happy one. Someone in Trumpworld should at least skim the Wikipedia page of the Church Committee.
In the Soleimani assassination, the Trump administration's staggering policy incoherence meets a much broader failure to appreciate or act on the basic reality that Iran is also a country with policy interests and designs. Imagine for a moment that a vastly more powerful China had spent the past 29 years intermittently bombing and invading and occupying and manipulating Canada. Can we really convince ourselves that we would not produce, and even encourage, a Soleimani of our own to wreak havoc on the Chinese occupation, to build alliances with anti-Chinese state and non-state actors, and do whatever was in our power to forestall a Chinese invasion of our own country? What would be our response if after all that, the Chinese assassinated the U.S. Defense Secretary in Ottawa just because they could?
Of course, the Iranians will respond in kind, just as we would. Innocent people will perish. And because we do not exactly have distinguished game theorists in charge of our hollowed-out foreign policy apparatus, at some point one of these acts of aggression is going to lead to a truly catastrophic outcome. The Iranian Supreme Leader has promised "harsh retaliation." Thousands of American troops are already en route to the region. Again, what do we think that looks like to Tehran? Does anyone in D.C. even care? The Trump administration is full of very stupid people who are so high on their own Teflon that they think they can do anything to anyone.
The worst part is that we will all pay the price when they are proven wrong.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.