Ever since Donald Trump was elected president on a non-military interventionist platform, sceptics have questioned his commitment to withdrawing troops from the Middle Eastern quagmire and stopping the endless wars he claims to despise. Now he has authorised the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the powerful Iranian Quds Force, we can be in absolutely no doubt on whether he stands: he’s no different to the other US presidents. It’s a massive strategic gamble. Soleimani was the second most powerful figure in Iran, answering only to the Ayatollah himself. For more than a decade he has been the architect of Iran’s regional military strategy. He helped Iraq and Syria defeat Isis. Among the Iranian masses, he was a hero like no other.
According to the Pentagon, Trump ‘directed’ the assassination of Soleimani to ‘deter future Iranian attacks’. This follows the breach of its Baghdad embassy earlier this week, after US air strikes that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataib Hezbollah. Washington blamed Iran for orchestrating the brief siege. However, the US strikes were themselves were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, for which the Pentagon held Soleimani personally responsible.
Sooner or later, this tit-for-tat was always going to get out of hand. Over the past 18 months, Tehran has shot down a US military surveillance drone, seized oil tankers and bombed others. Most spectacularly, in September Iran was blamed for a devastating strike on key US ally Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.
Taking out Soleimani in revenge may at first glance appear to be a massively disproportionate response, not to mention illegal according to international law. But Trump obviously wanted to send an unambiguous message to the mullahs in Tehran: don’t mess with the US military. After all, the only possible escalation after assassinating a country’s top military commander is war.
Back in 2011, Trump tweeted : ‘In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.’ In the midst of impeachment proceedings, Trump may shamelessly be working according to the same principle. Effectively, Trump’s official re-election campaign has just been announced. The American media may hate him, but they love nothing more than any president bombing countries in the Middle East.
The question now is how Iran will respond. Tehran will be under massive pressure from its allies Russia and China — the three countries just held joint naval drills in the Persian Gulf — not to do anything that risks a dramatic escalation. The last thing either country wants is to be dragged into a direct conflict with the US. That’s why so much is at stake. If Iran heeds their advice, Trump will be vindicated. If Iran does not, then he risks going down in history as the president who started World War III.