What is the end game with Iran? That is the question that Donald Trump and his advisors should have answered before giving the green light to kill the head of Iran's Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, and the head of Iraq's Poplar Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. But instead of worrying about the long term objective, the Trump Administration opted for the quick hit.
Let's be clear about what we just did–we assassinated two key military and political leaders on the sovereign territory of Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi Government. We justify this attack because of prior Shia terrorist attacks during the 2003-2008 period in Iraq that killed U.S. troops. There is no evidence or valid intelligence that shows Soleimani directing Iraqi Shia militias to attack and kill US troops. None. But those facts do not matter. Judging from the media reaction on cable news, there is a lot of whooping and celebrating the death of Soleimani as a decisive blow against terrorism. Boy we showed those Iranians who is boss. But that is not how the Iranians see it and that is not how a significant portion of the Iraqi Shia population see it. From their perspective this is the equivalent of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. It is an unjustified act of war. I am not arguing that they are right. I am simply pointing how the Iranian leadership likely views this act.
I fear that this action will unleash series of retaliatory strikes that are likely to escalate and get out of control. I pray for the sake of our nation and military personnel that I am wrong.
Despite the perpetual drumbeat in this country hyping the Iranian terrorist threat, Iran has engaged in very little terrorism over the past decade. (The facts are posted here).They shifted their actions to more conventional military operations and shied away from directly attacking U.S. forces. The attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion were carried out by Iraqi Shia militias acting on their own. They were not carrying out attacks at the behest of the Iranian regime because the Mullahs realized that the U.S. policy in Iraq was paving the way for Iranian control/dominance.
The Trump Administration's decision to carry out this attack is going to elicit a reaction from Iran that is likely to involve Saudi Arabia, Israel and U.S. military, diplomatic and economic targets. I do not rule out the possibility that Iran will content itself with filing protests and opting for a policy of restraint. But I think that is the least likely option.
More likely is that Iran will get back into the terrorist game and do so in a big way. Iran has a robust cyber warfare capability and hurt U.S. infrastructure. They can do more damage to us on this front simply because our economy is more dependent on computer networks. In the aftermath of the 2013 Stuxnet malware attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (it was U.S. software deployed by Israel) it is believed that Iran launched a spate of cyber attacks against online banking sites that accelerated in September. U.S. banks, including JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. That was just a warning shot from Iran.
Iran also will likely look at striking at U.S. Naval vessels and U.S. military installations in the Middle East. Diplomatic facilities and personnel also will be targeted and likely killed.
If Iran retaliates then the pressure will build on Donald Trump for more decisive action. Trump has the ability to say no and de-escalate, but that goes against his nature and would open him to savage political attacks for being weak on terrorism.
Which leaves us on the brink of something potentially devastating and costly.
To the extent that Iran carries out massive, deadly attacks that kill Americans, there is likely to be a short term boost to Trump's political standing. But as the smoke clears and we become bogged down in a new, very expensive war in the Middle East, the entire foundation of Trump's "get us out of foreign wars" will be blown up.
This action also is likely to bolster support for the existing Iranian regime. It makes it very easy for the Mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard to target Iranian protesters as enemies of the state.
I pray I am wrong. There is no joy or satisfaction in being proved right if things go horribly wrong.