WASHINGTON: With a single drone strike, President Donald Trump did more than just take out an avowed enemy of the United States. He may have also upended a central element of his foreign policy.
The Friday strike that killed the most prominent Iranian general may have ended any chance that he would get the United States out of the endless wars in the Middle East that he has railed against since taking office.
The killing of Gen Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has the world bracing for a possible retaliation, with many fearing it could lead to a wider conflict.
"It is probably the most profound escalation that the United States could have taken," said Ned Price, who served on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
Trump has been on a confrontational path with Iran since even before he took office, when he pledged to end the Iran nuclear deal signed by Obama. He insisted he doesn’t want war and the killing of Soleimani wasn’t meant to provoke the Islamic Republic.
"We took action last night to stop a war," Trump said. "We did not take action to start a war."
Nonetheless, the targeting of Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was arguably the most provocative military action in the Middle East since President George W. Bush launched the 2003 Iraq war to topple Saddam Hussein.
The killing of Soleimani, regarded as the second most powerful official in Iran, came as Trump has sought to apply increased pressure on Iran through economic sanctions to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, while Iran has countered with provocative attacks on US military and oil facilities in region.
By taking out Soleimani, Trump signaled to Iran that his patience has worn thin over the long, simmering conflagration.
The shadowy general who was in command of Iran’s proxy forces was responsible, according to the Pentagon, for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq during the height of the war there. White House officials said Trump decided to take action because Soleimani was plotting unspecified future attacks targeting Americans as tensions between the US and Iran have reached a boil.
Trump said he wasn’t interested in further escalating the conflict, but warned the regime that his military advisers have already drawn up plans to retaliate should Iran attack.
"If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary, and that in particular refers to Iran," Trump said.
Trump's aggressive approach with Iran is remarkable considering his oft-repeated desire to avoid expensive military entanglements. His aversion to long-term military presence has led to him butting heads with his top advisers as he has sought to end the US military presence in Afghanistan and Syria.
Yet, for much of his nearly three years in office, Trump has buffeted between demonstrating restraint and sending warning flares to Iran that the US is prepared for military confrontation.
In June, after Iran shot down a US drone, Trump said he gave top Pentagon officials permission to carry out military strikes against Iran before changing his mind 10 minutes before the operation was to be carried out.
Trump said he had a change of heart after being told by a general that the strikes would cause up to 150 Iranian casualties.
In September, with French President Emmanuel Macron serving as a go-between, Trump reportedly made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Iran President Hassan Rouhani to speak with him by phone from the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The next month the Pentagon announced it was deploying 3,000 US troops to protect Saudi Arabia. (The Pentagon on Friday announced following Soleimani’s killing that it would boost its presence in the region with an additional 3,500 US troops.)
The October boost in forces came after a drone attack on a Saudi oilfield. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of being behind unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The tit-for-tat between the US and Iran rose to a whole new level in recent weeks.
Last week, after months of massive street protests in Baghdad by demonstrators urging both Iran and the US to cease interfering in Iraqi affairs, the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk, killing a US contractor and wounding several US and Iraqi troops.
“President Trump may be genuine in not wanting war with Iran,” Price said. “At the same, it is fair to say that he doesn’t seem to understand the implication that an action like this could foretell.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2020