Administration officials argue that the general was plotting imminent attacks, but Democrats said that the intelligence they have seen was too vague.
WASHINGTON — Under increasing pressure to defend the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq, senior Trump administration officials offered new justifications but little detail on Tuesday, citing threats to the American Embassy in Baghdad and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped prompt the strike.
Democrats stepped up their criticism of intelligence that the administration provided immediately after the drone strike last week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The administration’s formal notification to Congress, which remains classified, provided no information on future threats or the imminent attack, officials who have read it said.
Several said it was improperly classified, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called it “vague and unacceptably unspecific.” Lawmakers pressed for more answers on Tuesday at a briefing by the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and other intelligence officials.
Iranian forces or their proxies were days from attacking American personnel when President Trump decided to strike General Suleimani, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. Mr. Esper added that General Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad to coordinate attacks following up on a two-day siege of the United States Embassy there last week by pro-Iranian demonstrators. He declined to elaborate but called the intelligence “exquisite.”
Mr. Trump was more forceful but no more specific. General Suleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we stopped him.”
Their defense of the killing came as Tehran launched its initial response, firing a dozen ballistic missiles early Wednesday from Iranian territory targeting American forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Kurdish region. A Pentagon official confirmed that the missiles were launched at bases hosting American forces, but provided no initial damage assessment.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a direct and proportional response to the Suleimani killing, not the kind of covert action through proxy forces that Tehran has traditionally employed. American officials in recent weeks warned about the threat from short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had smuggled into Iraq.
As the threats from Tehran increased, several NATO allies conducting training for Iraqi troops — including Canada, Germany and Croatia — decided at least temporarily to remove some troops from Iraq. Canada, which leads the NATO training mission, announced it was withdrawing its 500 troops and sending them to Kuwait.
Fueled by what they have called weak and inadequate briefings from the administration, Democrats grew increasingly vocal in their skepticism, arguing the administration has a high burden to meet to show that the strike was justified.
Some drew comparisons to the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent revelations about the failures of the war in Afghanistan.
“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “The burden is on the administration to prove the truthfulness and veracity of how they made their decision.”
Ms. Haspel has spoken with multiple lawmakers in recent days, some of whom have urged her to be more forthcoming about the intelligence behind the killing. Ms. Haspel, in turn, has emphasized that she had serious concerns about the threat posed by General Suleimani if the administration held off on targeting him.
Before the drone strike that killed the general, the pro-Iranian protesters had attacked barricades outside the American Embassy in Baghdad, and American officials feared the attacks could resume and the situation could easily grow more dangerous, threatening the diplomats and military personnel who work at the compound.
General Suleimani had arrived in Baghdad to pressure the Iraqi government to kick out American forces after attacks by the United States on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group with ties to Iran, according to American officials.
One official noted that General Suleimani was traveling with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi who helps lead the Iranian-backed militias and who was coordinating the attacks on the American Embassy. Mr. al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike.
Additionally, the classified document sent to Capitol Hill only recounts the attacks that Iran and its proxies have carried out in recent months and weeks rather than outlining new threats, according to three American officials.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. demanded that Mr. Trump give a “sober-minded explanation” of the strike, its consequences and the intelligence that prompted it.
“All we’ve heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion,” Mr. Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in remarks from Pier 59 in New York. If there was a threat, he added, “we’re owed an explanation and the facts to back it up.”
Iranian-supported militias have increasingly directed attacks at Iraqi bases with American forces over the past two months, officials have said. Since May, intelligence and military officials have warned that Iran has been preparing for attacks against Americans in the Middle East.
The reports have prompted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. to relocate officers out of the American Embassy in Baghdad in recent days and weeks, though some C.I.A. officers were relocated earlier, according to officials briefed on the matter. Some went to other parts of Iraq, and officials emphasized that the moves had not diminished intelligence collection on Iranian activity in the country.
“We’re all going to want to hear why they thought targeting Suleimani was the best option, what were the other targets on the table, did they know about the collateral damage?” he said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has long vocally opposed the lengthy deployments of American forces overseas, has emerged as one of the few Republicans willing to criticize the decision. He questioned the administration’s claim of an imminent attack, citing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated criticism of General Suleimani.
“I’ve always been surprised at how presidents in general, including President Obama, stretch the idea of what imminence is,” Mr. Paul said. “I can tell you the secretary of state’s been talking about for over a year all the things Suleimani has done. I think they found this as an opportune time to take him out.”Mr. Pompeo has led the administration’s defense of the strike and said on Tuesday that the intelligence was presented to Mr. Trump in broad detail before he ordered the strike.
“It was the right decision,” Mr. Pompeo said.
And Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said that General Suleimani was plotting attacks on “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at multiple facilities.
Mr. O’Brien said the intelligence would most likely remain classified to avoid putting sources of intelligence and collection methods at risk. But, he added, “I can tell you that the evidence was strong.”
With the exception of Mr. Paul, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have coalesced around the administration.
“We had very clear, very solid information from the intelligence community that indeed there were going to be imminent attacks that could involve hundreds of people, could involve even thousands of people,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters late last week, calling the intelligence “rock solid.”
The House was set this week to consider measures to curtail the president’s war-making powers on Iran by invoking the War Powers Resolution. A similar measure could come to a vote on the Senate floor as early as next week. And the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee announced a hearing set for next Tuesday on the Trump administration’s Iran policy.
The Suleimani assassination is the kind of tactic Trump promised his voters — but without a strategy to match.
There’s a witticism that makes the rounds on Twitter whenever Donald Trump does something particularly plutocratic or corrupt, a variation on the following: Look, this is what all those folks in Midwestern diners voted for. The sarcastic point being either that
- Trump’s populism was a con with blue-collar voters as its mark, or else that
- Trump’s supporters professed to care about his populist promises only as a means to own the libs.
But with the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, I’m afraid that I must deploy the one-liner seriously: This was, in fact, exactly what a certain kind of Trump supporter voted for — including both the downscale, disaffected conservatives who turned out for him in the primary and the blue-collar Obama-Trump moderates who tipped the Midwest in the general election.
Not the killing of Suleimani specifically; like Trump himself on the campaign trail, some of these voters wouldn’t be able to tell the Quds Force from the Kurds. But the strategic spirit behind the killing, the preference for a single act of vengeance over more ambitious forms of intervention, the belief in the hardest possible counterpunch, the dismissal of norms and rules and cautious habits that constrain the violence that America deals out … all this is what Trump promised in the 2016 campaign, with his simultaneous dismissal of both neoconservatism and liberal internationalism and his pledge to crush America’s enemies by any means.
This combined promise was not a contradiction; it was an expression of a practical philosophy of foreign policy, usefully called Jacksonianism, that many Americans and especially many white and rural and working-class Americans have always tended to embrace.
- Jacksonian and
The worldviews are simplifications (“intended to be suggestive and evocative,” in Mead’s words), and they inevitably frustrate many scholars; nonetheless, they remain a useful way of thinking about how, in our imperial era, American foreign policy tends to work.
The Hamiltonians are the business-minded internationalists, cold-eyed and stability-oriented and wary of wars that seem idealistic rather than self-interested.
The Wilsonians are the idealists, whether neoconservative or liberal-humanitarian, who regard the United States military as a force for spreading democracy and protecting human rights.
- Most foreign policy elites belong to one of these two groups,
- both political parties include both tendencies in their upper echelons, and
- most recent presidencies have been defined by internal conflicts between the two.
But far more American voters are either Jacksonians or Jeffersonians.
The Jeffersonian impulse, more common on the left than on the right, is toward a “come home, America” retreat from empire that regards global hegemony as a corrupting folly and America’s wars as mostly unwise and unjust. (“No blood for oil” is the defining Jeffersonian attitude toward all our Middle Eastern misadventures.) The Jacksonian tendency, more common on the right than on the left, is toward a pugilistic nationalism that’s wary of all international entanglements but ready for war whenever threats arise. (“More rubble, less trouble” is the essential Jacksonian credo.)
Since neither tendency has that much purchase in the imperial capital, it’s a safe bet that at any given moment in Washington, D.C., elites in both political parties will be trying to mobilize Jacksonian or Jeffersonian sentiment to achieve Hamiltonian or Wilsonian ends.
But when elites of both persuasions preside over too many calamities, you can get Jeffersonians and Jacksonians as important presidential contenders in their own right — think of George McGovern and George Wallace when the Vietnam War went bad. And when one party’s elite loses control of the electoral process entirely, it turns out that you can get an actual Jacksonian in the White House.
Yes, not everything Trump has done fits Mead’s paradigm — but a great deal of what makes him different from previous presidents is plainly Jacksonian.
- A Hamiltonian wouldn’t have saber-rattled so wildly against North Korea;
- a Wilsonian wouldn’t be so subsequently eager for a deal with such an odious regime.
- A Hamiltonian wouldn’t be as eager for an extended trade war with China;
- a Wilsonian would speak out more clearly against Beijing’s human rights abuses instead of just treating them as one more bargaining chip.
- Trump’s bureaucracy-impeded attempts to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan are patently Jacksonian;
- likewise his disdain for his predecessor’s negotiations on climate change. His
- eagerness to pardon war criminals and
- threaten war crimes, meanwhile, are Jacksonianism at its worst.
What is the best of Jacksonianism? I would say it’s the capacity to identify and prioritize threats, an area where Wilsonians get way too expansive and ambitious (“make the world safe for democracy,” “an end to evil”), while Hamiltonians sometimes let realpolitik blind them to ideological enmities that can’t be negotiated away.
To the extent that Trump’s foreign policy has been a useful corrective to his predecessors, and better than what other Republican candidates might have offered, it’s been because of his attempts at just such a prioritization. The execution has been, inevitably, Trumpy, but the goals —
- drawing down in Syria and Central Asia,
- confronting China while de-escalating with North Korea,
- burden-shifting to other NATO powers in Europe while
- keeping our relationship with Russia cool but short of Cold War hostility — are more strategically reasonable than the Bushian and Clintonite forms of interventionism that Trump campaigned against.
But in Trump’s Iran policy we may be seeing the limits of Jacksonianism, or at least a Jacksonianism that operates in strategic contexts that its own impulses did not create.
The Iranian government is indeed our enemy, to an extent that the Hamiltonians in the Obama administration sometimes underestimated, and in that sense Trump’s hawkishness toward the mullahs fits with his Jacksonian approach. But the Tehran regime’s capacity and inclination to cause problems for America also reflect our regional presence, posture and alliances, which mostly exist to advance a kind of mixtape of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian grand strategies —
- access to Middle Eastern oil, the
- promotion of democracy and human rights, and
- regime change in Tehran itself.
None of these are naturally Jacksonian goals, especially now that America is more energy independent than when the Carter Doctrine was formulated or the first Iraq War fought. Were America’s Iran policy fully Jacksonian we might still be at loggerheads with Tehran, but we wouldn’t be nearly so invested in projecting power in the Persian Gulf, and there would be fewer natural flash points and fewer targets for Iranian attacks.
But so long as Trump is working within an inherited Hamiltonian-Wilsonian strategic framework, his Jacksonian tactical approach — in the Suleimani case, picking the most surprising and dramatic option on the military board of retaliatory options — is unlikely to serve his official goal of escaping endless Middle Eastern entanglements. Instead, it points to either
- a permanent retaliatory cycle with the Iranians — we hit hard, they hit hard, we hit a little harder, ad infinitum — or else
- disastrous ground war in a nonessential theater, the least Jacksonian of ends.
Precisely because I think Trump’s Jacksonianism is fundamentally sincere, I don’t think the full-scale war scenario is particularly likely. And since I’ve written numerous columns, before his election and since, about Trump as geopolitical destabilizer without anything as bad as Obama’s still-unfolding Libya folly yet ensuing, it’s important to stress that the fallout from the Suleimani gambit could be less dramatic than the panicked punditry expects. Indeed, if the dead general was really the Islamic Republic’s Stonewall Jackson, its asymmetric strategy’s indispensable man, then over the long run his death might benefit American interests more than any subsequent escalation hurts them.
But the most likely near-term consequence of Suleimani’s death is an escalation in hostilities that looks to most Americans like more of the endless war that Trump campaigned against. In which case some war-weary voters might decide that if they really want out of futile Middle Eastern conflicts electing a ruthless Jacksonian is not enough; only a peace-seeking Jeffersonian will do.
And it just so happens that a genuine left-wing Jeffersonian, Bernie Sanders, is currently near the top of the Democratic field, contending with Joe Biden, the embodiment of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian elite dialectic despite his blue-collar lingo, in an increasingly spirited foreign policy debate.
If the establishment’s follies gave us Trump’s Jacksonian presidency, in other words, the question before the Democratic electorate is whether the perils of Trumpism require that we give that establishment another chance — or whether putting a Jeffersonian in charge of an empire built by Hamiltonians and Wilsonians is the only reasonable option left.
In a departure from Iran’s usual tactics of hiding behind proxies, the country’s supreme leader wants any retaliation for the killing of a top military commander to be carried out openly by Iranian forces.
In the tense hours following the American killing of a top Iranian military commander, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation. It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, three Iranians familiar with the meeting said Monday.
It was a startling departure for the Iranian leadership. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Tehran had almost always cloaked its attacks behind the actions of proxies it had cultivated around the region. But in the fury generated by the killing of the military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a close ally and personal friend of the supreme leader, the ayatollah was willing to cast aside those traditional cautions.
The nation’s anger over the commander’s death was on vivid display Monday, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran for a funeral procession and Mr. Khamenei wept openly over the coffin.
After weeks of furious protests across the country against corruption and misrule, both those who had criticized and supported the government marched together, united in outrage. Subway trains and stations were packed with mourners hours before dawn, and families brought children carrying photographs of General Suleimani.
A reformist politician, Sadegh Kharazi, said he had not seen crowds this size since the 1989 funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“We are ready to take a fierce revenge against America,” Gen. Hamid Sarkheili of the Revolutionary Guard, declared to the throng. “American troops in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq and Syria are within our reach.”
“No negotiations or deal, only war with America,” students chanted in an online video from a university campus.
A renowned eulogist and member of the Revolutionary Guard, Sadegh Ahangaran, exhorted the funeral crowds to raise their voices so “damned America can hear you” and to “wave the flags in preparation for war.”
The increasingly public vows of direct action on Monday constituted Iran’s latest act of defiance to President Trump. Over the weekend the president had repeatedly threatened to retaliate for any attacks against American interests by ordering airstrikes against as many as 52 potential targets, one for each of the American hostages held after the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979.
In response, Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, on Monday responded with his own numerology. “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” he said on Twitter, a reference to the 290 people killed in 1988 in the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by an American warship. “Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Mr. Rouhani added.
Where, when and even if Iran may choose to retaliate remains a matter of speculation. As Iranian leaders weighed just what form it might take, analysts said the targets included American troops in neighboring Syria and Iraq, American bases in the Persian Gulf or American embassies or diplomats almost anywhere.
When previous attempts at direct strikes or assassinations have proved unsuccessful, some noted, Iranian-backed militants have turned to the simpler tactic of killing civilians with terrorist bombs.
This was the sequence in 2012 with the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. After failing in attempts to attack Israeli targets or kill Israeli officials in revenge for the killing of one of the group’s leaders, the militants eventually settled on the easier job of bombing a bus load of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, said Afshon Ostovar, a scholar of Iran at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“We are in uncharted territory, and the truth of the matter is nobody knows how Iran is going to respond. I don’t think even Iran knows,” Mr. Ostovar said. “But I think there is a blood lust right now in the Revolutionary Guards.”
In Iraq, where the Parliament had earlier called for the immediate expulsion of the 5,000 American troops stationed there, Prime Minister Mahdi on Monday listed steps to curtail the troops’ movements.
While plans were being made for departure of the Americans, he said, they will now be limited to “training and advising” Iraqi forces, required to remain within the bases and barred from Iraqi air space.
Mr. Mahdi met with Matthew Tueller, the American ambassador to Iraq, on Monday, and “stressed the need for joint action to implement the withdrawal,” according to a statement and photo released by Mr. Mahdi’s office. He also emphasized Iraq’s efforts to prevent the current tensions between Iran and the United States from sliding into “open war.”
The United States military stirred a media flurry by accidentally releasing a draft letter that seemed to describe imminent plans to withdraw from Iraq. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, the commander of the United States forces in Iraq, wrote to the Iraqi government that the American troops would be relocated “to prepare for onward movement.”
“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” he wrote.
But Defense Department officials played down the significance of the letter. “Here’s the bottom line, this was a mistake,” General Mark A. Milley, President Trump’s top military commander, told reporters at the Pentagon during a hastily called press briefing. “It’s a draft unsigned letter because we are moving forces around.”
“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, told reporters. “There’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.”
Although the Trump administration has said that the United States killed General Suleimani because he was planning imminent attacks against American interests, there were indications Monday that he may have been leading an effort to calm tensions with Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq said that he was supposed to meet with General Suleimani on the morning he was killed, and that he expected him to bring messages from the Iranians that might help to “reach agreements and breakthroughs important for the situation in Iraq and the region.”
In Washington, two top Senate Democrats urged President Trump early Monday to declassify the administration’s formal notification to Congress giving notice of the airstrike that killed General Suleimani.
Such notification of Congress is required by law, and to classify the entirety of such a notification is highly unusual.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a joint statement that it was “critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner.”
And Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, urged Mr. Trump’s critics not to jump to conclusions. “Unfortunately, in this toxic political environment, some of our colleagues rushed to blame our own government before even knowing the facts,” he said.
For its part, Iran simultaneously continued a months-long push against the Trump administration over its demands that Tehran submit to a more restrictive renegotiation of a 2015 accord with the Western powers over its nuclear research. The Trump administration has sought to pressure Iran by devastating its economy with sweeping economic sanctions, which Iranian officials have denounced as economic warfare.
The sanctions set off the cycle of attacks and counterattacks that culminated last week in the killing of General Suleimani. Iran has also responded with carefully calibrated steps away from the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. On Sunday, Iranian officials said that they had now abandoned all restrictions on the enrichment of uranium, though they said they would continue to admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Amid the emotion of the funeral, some called for vengeance that would remake the region. “Even if we attack all of U.S. bases and even if we kill Trump himself it’s not enough revenge,” Brig. Gen Amir Ali HajiZadeh said at the funeral. “We must totally eliminate all U.S. troops from the region.”
For now, Iranian officials seem to be in no rush to strike back against the United States, possibly enjoying their ability to spread anxiety throughout the West. They seem content to
- bask in the nationalist surge in their popularity,
- growing international sympathy and the push to
- expel the American troops from Iraq.
“I don’t think they want to shift the conversation yet,” said Sanam Vakil, a scholar of Iran at Chatham House, a research center in London.
But for the hard-liners who dominate the Iranian National Security Council, she said, some vigorous retaliation would be the only rational response. “A non-response would appear weak and invite further pressure, creating problems in domestic politics and internationally,” she said.
Here’s what to expect after the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful military commander.
The Iranian government’s swift pledge to avenge the Trump administration’s killing of its infamous military commander Qassem Soleimani, and the U.S. government’s deployment of thousands of additional troops to the Middle East and urgent call for Americans to leave Iraq, has left a distinct impression: that some fearsome Iranian retaliation is coming any minute and that it could quickly spiral into an all-out war between the United States and Iran that would surpass the horror of the Iraq War.
But that’s not exactly how Iran operates. The U.S. and Iran have been locked for the past four decades in a shadowy, shape-shifting struggle—what the historian David Crist memorably termed a “twilight war”—and Iran has tended to follow a certain blueprint: compensate for its inferior military capabilities relative to the United States by waging wide-ranging proxy warfare that stops short of direct conflict, allows it to maintain plausible deniability, and is carefully calibrated to advance Iranian interests at a low cost and with minimal risk.
The Iranians “don’t lash out,” Ariane Tabatabai, a scholar at the Rand Corporation who has studied Iran’s military doctrine, told me. “I suspect whatever will happen—and there’s no doubt in my mind that there will be a response”—won’t be some knee-jerk action to appease a domestic audience but will instead reflect a “more strategic, more careful, planned approach,” she said. “That’s going to keep us on our toes for the foreseeable future.”
Iran’s way of war is informed by the recognition that while it is a major regional power, it is no match for America militarily. According to the Global Firepower ranking, which the United States leads, Iran has the 14th-most-powerful military in the world, in between Brazil’s and Pakistan’s. The Iranians have a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons yet. They have a ballistic-missile program but no long-range missiles that can reach the United States. Iran has decent relations with Russia and China but no stalwart great-power allies; as one of the world’s most isolated countries, it does not have many allies at all. And while the Iranians have 523,000 active-duty forces and another 350,000 reserves, which is nothing to scoff at, their conventional military is hobbled by aging equipment, international sanctions, and restrictions on arms imports.
Tehran’s solution has been to engage with the United States asymmetrically, including influence operations and, more recently, cyber activities. At the forefront of this effort has been the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and especially its Quds Force unit, which Soleimani commanded. The IRGC has exploited internal conflicts and weak states in the Middle East, cultivating proxy forces—such as Shiite militias in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon—that serve as a kind of alliance network to rival America’s regional alliances.
In a recent analysis, the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Iranian leaders have concluded that their most potent weapon is their “sovereign capability to conduct warfare in battlefields across the Middle East through third parties,” which “has encountered no effective international response but has consistently delivered Iran advantage without the cost or risk of direct confrontation with adversaries,” which could endanger the Iranian regime.
Indeed, a list recently compiled by the Congressional Research Service of 20 Iran-related terrorist attacks or plots against the U.S. and its allies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution shows that nearly all were carried out by proxies such as Hezbollah, by the IRGC, or by Iranian intelligence. Be it the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military housing facility in Saudi Arabia or the deaths of hundreds of American troops at the hands of Shiite militias during the Iraq War, the details and extent of Iran’s involvement in harming the United States are often sketchy.
This pattern has continued with Iran’s reaction to Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal and to reimpose sweeping sanctions on Tehran. After a year-long period of calculated restraint in Tehran came mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and a shoot-down of an unmanned U.S. drone in June (the latter of which the Iranians uncharacteristically admitted to carrying out), a murky attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, and a rocket barrage by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia that killed an American contractor in December, leading to the latest surge in tensions.
Tabatabai said that the only historical U.S. actions she could think of that approached the level of provocation of the Soleimani killing were American support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the U.S. military’s downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, and the suspected U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear program under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. U.S. support for the Iraqis may have played a role in Iran supporting militants who launched deadly attacks on the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. But the Reagan administration claimed that the shoot-down of the Iranian plane was a mistake and apologized for the incident, which perhaps contributed to Iran’s restrained response. And the Stuxnet attack was difficult to attribute definitively, though Tehran did react by beefing up its offensive cyber capabilities.
Now the United States has taken out arguably the second-most-powerful figure in Iran, and has claimed responsibility for the killing publicly and boastfully. In the 40 years of conflict between the two countries, such a moment has never come before. And that’s why, despite such a long track record, it’s so hard to predict what will happen next. What is predictable is that Iran will seek to exact revenge, and that it will aim for elements of surprise that will throw the United States off balance.
Just because Iran wants to avoid a direct war with the United States doesn’t mean its response to Soleimani’s killing won’t be fierce. The fear of that blowback is, in fact, what kept previous U.S. administrations from striking Soleimani when they had the chance.
The former U.S. official Ilan Goldenberg, who has forecast what war with Iran could look like, foresees Iran breaking free of the remaining restraints on its nuclear-weapons program. He also expects Tehran to green-light “all-out conflict” by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world. The counterterrorism analyst Charles Lister anticipates intense violence in Syria and Iraq that will pressure the United States to withdraw militarily from both countries, while the Middle East expert Jon Alterman thinks cyber warfare is coming. “The entire world will need to be on high alert for months or (more likely) years,” he writes.
As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted on Thursday, war with Iran, in contrast to the Gulf War or the Iraq War, will be fought across the region and perhaps the wider world against an array of civilian, economic, and military targets. There’s a reason U.S. allies in the region, no fans of Iran and Soleimani, have reacted with considerable foreboding to this week’s developments. The Saudis, for example, have urged “self-restraint” to avert “unbearable consequences,” while the Israeli government has expressed muted approval for the operation while bracing for Iranian retaliation.
Tabatabai noted that Washington, like Tehran, has traditionally been careful to not take actions that would bring it into direct conflict with the Iranians, and added that she’s been surprised by the brazen actions each country has taken in recent weeks. (Less than 24 hours after the Soleimani killing came yet another surprise: more air strikes against Shiite militias in Iraq.) The twilight war has been brought into more daylight than ever before, and the big question is whether the rules of the past four decades still apply.
To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East.
In a november night in 2013, Barack Obama delivered a statement about an interim nuclear deal that had just been reached, freezing Iran’s program in place. When he was done, I walked with him back to the entrance of his residence, watched by the stoic portraits of former presidents. “Congratulations,” I said. “You just made sure that we won’t have a war with Iran during your presidency.”
“That’s probably true,” he said, considering the question. “But I want to make sure that the next president doesn’t have to go to war either.”
Obama was referring to the need to reach a comprehensive deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. It would take almost two years of painstaking negotiations to get there, but the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accomplished that objective. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced plutonium for a bomb; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, the machines that can enrich uranium for a bomb; shipped 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium (enough for 10 bombs) out of the country; and submitted to the most comprehensive international inspections regime ever put into place to monitor a nuclear program.
These achievements are worth revisiting, because any hope of saving the Iran deal likely died with the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the Iranian government has indicated that it will no longer abide by the limits on its nuclear program imposed by the JCPOA.
How did we get here? The debate over the Iran deal was among the most acrimonious of the Obama years. Throughout 2015, congressional Republicans stridently opposed it. Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia worked to marshal opposition. Think tanks churned out alarmist reports about the JCPOA. Tens of millions of dollars were spent by outside groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and United Against Nuclear Iran urging Congress to kill the deal. To prevent that legislation from passing, we worked frenetically to muster 41 Democratic Senate votes to uphold a filibuster. Indeed, the fact that it was far easier for George W. Bush to take the United States into an unnecessary war in Iraq than it was for Barack Obama to secure a nuclear deal to avoid one with Iran says something deeply strange and alarming about our country and its politics.
As soon as he began his run for the presidency, Donald Trump anointed himself the most strident of the JCPOA’s opponents, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” It is likely, of course, that Trump couldn’t even describe the Iran deal’s terms. He failed to articulate a different set of nuclear restrictions, or to offer his views on the nature of centrifuges that Iran should be allowed to operate, or the research and development it should be permitted to perform. Trump simply wanted to destroy anything that Obama built and to satiate right-wing supporters who had their own reasons for opposing the JCPOA. What Trump could do is lie about the Iran deal, and he did so relentlessly.
Upon becoming president, Trump encountered an inconvenient truth: The Iran deal was working. Trump’s own intelligence community and military leadership confirmed that Iran was complying with the JCPOA’s terms; his own secretary of defense argued publicly that staying in the JCPOA was in America’s interest; and all the other parties to the deal—the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China—opposed Trump’s instinct to pull out. After Trump refused to certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA (even though it was), even Republicans in Congress quietly refused to reimpose sanctions. And after Trump demanded a better deal, French President Emmanuel Macron offered him the opportunity to pursue one through negotiation, provided that the JCPOA stayed in place. Despite all this evidence and all these efforts, Trump withdrew from the Iran deal in May of 2018 and started reimposing sanctions.
Few recent presidential decisions have been proved to be so spectacularly wrong in such a short period of time.
Trump said that in withdrawing from the JCPOA, he would be in a stronger position to stop Iran’s provocations across the Middle East. The opposite has proved to be the case. Iran has already resumed aspects of its nuclear program that were restricted under the JCPOA. And over the past year alone, Iran or its proxies have shot down a U.S. drone, harassed and seized oil tankers, bombed Saudi oil infrastructure, killed unarmed protesters, and resumed rocket attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. During the implementation of the Iran deal, by contrast, there wasn’t a single such rocket attack from a Shia militia. Trump initiated the escalatory cycle that led us to this extraordinarily dangerous moment.
It is ironic that the killing of Qassem Soleimani could put the final nail in the coffin of the Iran deal. In the Obama White House, we assessed that Soleimani opposed the JCPOA, and that he led a hard-line flank that viewed the Iranian foreign minister who conducted the negotiations with suspicion. This view was often mocked by Iran-deal opponents, who declared that there was no distinction between hard-liners and more moderate Iranian officials. Indeed, U.S. hawks regularly foreclose opportunities for diplomacy by wrongly seeing the government of any adversary as a monolith. But now, in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, that debate is largely moot: As mourners flood the streets, all of Iran’s leaders are consolidating around a harder line, vowing to chase the United States out of the region.
We have already seen the consequences of this latest escalation in Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign come into focus. Iraqi leaders are demanding that we leave their country, after Americans sacrificed thousands of lives and spent more than $1 trillion there; new restrictions are inhibiting the fight against ISIS; Iran is casting off the remaining limits on its nuclear program. In the months and years to come, we should expect renewed attacks against U.S. interests—and Americans—from Iran and its proxies. In contrast to the international unity that enabled the achievement of the JCPOA, Trump’s abandonment of it has alienated the United States from our closest allies. And in his other signature foreign-policy initiative—negotiations with North Korea—Kim Jong Un is pushing forward with his own nuclear and missile programs, perhaps having drawn the lesson that you cannot trust the United States to keep a nuclear deal.
In response, Trump and his chief lieutenant on Iran—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have sought to deflect blame to the JCPOA. While blaming the Iran deal for the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is absurd, this argument should come as no surprise. Trump’s Iran policy was formulated in opposition to Obama, not with an eye toward actual governing. His is a worldview that relies on false charges, hyperbolic rhetoric, and assertions of strength as an end in itself, and not as a means to achieving something. At a Cabinet meeting last year, Trump sat at the table with a Game of Thrones–style poster that read “Sanctions are coming,” as if it were all just a movie, and not real life.
By contrast, the Iran deal was designed to address reality, and discharge the responsibilities of governing. Like any such effort, it was imperfect, and left all parties dissatisfied. For the Iranians, it was flawed because it didn’t lift all sanctions; it did, however, offer relief from certain sanctions and the prospect of further relief if Iran continued to comply. For us, it was flawed because the JCPOA’s most effective restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program expired in 10 or 15 years—but that was 10 or 15 more years of assurance than having no deal in place, and further negotiations that built upon the JCPOA were always an available option. Finally, the JCPOA didn’t stop Iran’s ballistic-missile program or its support for terror in the Middle East; however, the JCPOA did ensure that a regime that has ballistic missiles and supports terror was verifiably prohibited from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was the whole point. You don’t make nuclear deals like that with your friends.
Indeed, imagine how the current crisis would feel if Iran already had nuclear weapons.
Governing isn’t about making demands on other countries that will never be achieved just because they sound good back in Washington. And the presidency certainly isn’t a movie. When “sanctions are coming,” real people get hurt and terrible things can happen in the real world. One legacy of the JCPOA is that it demonstrates the utility of a different approach.
As Trump confronts the consequences of a crisis of his own creation, he can thank Obama for the fact that Iran doesn’t yet have the means to produce a nuclear weapon. He can thank Obama for the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is set back from where it was in 2015. He can thank Obama for the inspections regime that has functioned effectively. By contrast, the result of Trump’s policy—designed for Fox News sets and campaign rallies—has been a more hard-line Iranian politics, an Iranian adversary that has stepped up its provocations, and a newly unconstrained Iranian nuclear program.
Barack Obama did achieve a deal good enough to prevent his successor from having to go to war with Iran. But now, despite all that work, a de facto state of war exists between the United States and Iran. To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Donald Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East. In doing so, he has tragically proved Obama right: The choice all along was between the Iran deal or an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and some form of war.
One thing is clear after the killing of Iran’s second most important official: Americans are not safer.
Americans would be wise to brace for war with Iran.
Full-scale conflict is not a certainty, but the probability is higher than at any point in decades. Despite President Trump’s oft-professed desire to avoid war with Iran and withdraw from military entanglements in the Middle East, his decision to order the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s second most important official, as well as Iraqi leaders of an Iranian-backed militia, now locks our two countries in a dangerous escalatory cycle that will likely lead to wider warfare.
How did we get here? What are the consequences of these targeted killings? Can we avoid a worse-case scenario?
The escalatory cycle began in May 2018, when President Trump recklessly ignored the advice of his national security team and the opposition of our allies in unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — despite Iran’s full adherence to its terms and its efficacy in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. Since then, the Trump administration has had no coherent strategy to constrain Iran’s program or to counter other aspects of its nefarious behavior.
Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” to impose ever more debilitating economic sanctions did not force Iran to capitulate; instead, predictably, it induced Tehran to lash out with a series of increasingly bold military provocations against Sunni Arab and Western targets while restarting important aspects of its nuclear program. Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, notably in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, have only intensified. At the same time, it has conducted a brutal crackdown on its civilian population. None of the Trump administration’s stated objectives have been met; if anything, the United States’ security and strategic positions in the region have weakened.
In deciding to eliminate General Suleimani, Mr. Trump and his team argue they were acting in self-defense to thwart imminent attacks on Americans in Iraq and the region. This may be true, as General Suleimani was a ruthless murderer and terrorist with much American blood on his hands. Unfortunately, it’s hard to place confidence in the representations of an administration that lies almost daily about matters large and small and, even in this critical instance, failed to brief, much less consult, bipartisan leaders in Congress.
Second, even if the killing of General Suleimani is justified by self-defense, it doesn’t make it strategically wise. Given the demonstrably haphazard and shortsighted nature of the Trump administration’s national security decision-making process (including
- calling off strikes against Iran 10 minutes before impact,
- inviting the Taliban to Camp David and
- abandoning the Kurds),
it’s doubtful the administration spent much time gaming out the second and third order consequences of their action or preparing to protect American military and diplomatic personnel in the region.
To assess the fallout of killing General Suleimani, we must understand that the Iranian regime cannot survive internal dissent or sustain its powerful position in the region if it backs down from this provocation. For Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a strong response is essential. For the United States, the question is: What form will it take and how quickly will it come? One thing is clear: Americans are not safer, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Fox News the morning after. Rather, American citizens are at greater risk of attack across a far wider battlefield than before. That is why the State Department has urged all Americans to depart not only Iraq but also Pakistan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have attacked United States and allied installations, and can continue to do so around the country. The government in Baghdad has declared the killing a violation of the terms of the American military presence in Iraq. We will face mounting pressure to withdraw our military and diplomatic personnel from the country. If we leave, the United States will suffer a major strategic defeat: Iran will justifiably claim victory, and the gains of the fight against ISIS will be lost as the terrorist group rebuilds.
There is no hope now to revive, much less strengthen, the Iran nuclear deal, and we must expect Iran will accelerate its efforts to revive its nuclear program without constraint.
The global economy is imperiled, as the Gulf States’ energy infrastructure faces the risk of an Iranian attack, and commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and the larger Gulf region is threatened.
United States military, diplomatic and commercial operations as well as civilian targets throughout the Middle East are in range of both Iranian missiles and terrorist cells. From Afghanistan and Europe to Africa and Latin America, Iranian proxies — once latent — can stage asymmetric attacks against American and allied targets without warning. Even in the United States, we have reason to fear that terrorist sleeper cells could be activated. Worse, we face these threats now substantially alone, as the Trump administration apparently neglected to consult or even warn our key allies and partners about the impending risks to their interests that result from killing General Suleimani.
In the face of Iranian reprisals, it will be difficult for the United States to de-escalate tensions and avoid a larger conflict. Iran gets the next move. The United States has failed to deter Tehran thus far, even with the deployment of 14,000 additional American troops to the Gulf region since May. The announcement this week that the Pentagon was sending 3,500 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division seems unlikely to change things.
When Iran does respond, its response will likely be multifaceted and occur at unpredictable times and in multiple places. President Trump will then face what may yet be the most consequential national security decision of his presidency. If he reacts with additional force, the risk is great that the confrontation will spiral into a wider military conflict. If he fails to react in kind, he will likely invite escalating Iranian aggression.
It’s hard to envision how this ends short of war.