In a massive escalation of tensions, the US has killed Iran’s most senior general Qasem Soleimani, a man revered not only throughout Iran but also in much of the Middle East and elsewhere, not least due to his victories over Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The US claims the killing was a pre-emptive strike aimed at preventing attacks on Americans, but has yet to produce specific evidence to support this claim. President Donald Trump meanwhile announced the attack by simply tweeting an image of the US flag.
Reaction from much of the world in condemning the attack as an unnecessary and unlawful escalation has been swift, with even traditional US allies such as in Europe notably not offering their support for what is in effect an act of war that almost certainly will produce further escalation, bloodshed and instability in the Middle East and beyond.
Many are understandably asking what strategy lies behind Trump’s move, and what the US could possibly gain from carrying out an attack the negative consequences of which were entirely foreseeable. The answer is that, at least as far as can be discerned, there is no strategy.
US foreign policy, forever pulled in different and often contradictory directions by numerous lobbies and special interest groups such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and US arms companies, has rarely been entirely coherent or consistent – and arguably indeed usually serves such special interest groups rather than the American people themselves.
Under Trump however, what passes for US strategy appears to be a president often acting impulsively either on his own initiative or on the advice of a small group of seemingly neocon officials and advisors who seek to exploit opportunities for conflict whenever they arise. Thus for example in July Trump ordered an attack on Iran in response to the downing of a US drone, only then to realize the likely catastrophic consequences and cancel the attack plan.
At the time, the former head of the UK’s Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, described how ‘powerful groups in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US want war and think a strike on Iran will lead to regime change.’
Those such as John Bolton who promote such a war likely don’t envisage a protracted conflict of the type that the US would almost certainly lose. They imagine instead that a short sharp conflict for example based on air strikes would topple the Iran government at low cost to the US in terms of money and lives. In this they are almost certainly wrong. As West pointed out, such an attack would likely lead to ‘open ended war with catastrophic consequences across the world’.
Now such an attack has occurred, and this is the new and highly dangerous situation in which the US and the wider world now finds itself.
Iran, just as would the US if Iran had done the same, views Soleimani’s killing as an act of war. And just as for Iran if it had done the same, the consequences for the US, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has now promised, are likely to be severe.
Iran’s response is perhaps unlikely however to be immediate, nor will it likely involve a conventional military confrontation with powerful US forces. Instead, Iran has a range of asymmetric response options available that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests over a protracted period of time, and all around the world.
Regardless for example of whether last year’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf or the crippling drone strikes on Saudi oil refining facilities were actually carried out directly by Iran, such actions demonstrated how at little material cost it would be possible to severely disrupt the oil supplies on which much of the West depends. If this was to happen, the resulting rise in oil prices would likely have a substantial impact on the economies of the US and its allies.
Similarly, Iran may exploit other areas in which, along with drones, it has achieved technological progress. An example is the possible use of cyber attacks on the US and its allies, which again has the capability of causing severe economic and even physical harm – particularly if financial, energy and other infrastructure were to be targeted.
Iran’s response to the US killing of its beloved general is unlikely to be purely economic however, and at least some of the price exacted on the US will almost certainly be in blood. If so, that blood will likely be of the ordinary US diplomats, servicemen and women, together with the private contractors to whom US military work is increasingly outsourced, who live and work often in exposed locations in dozens of countries in which they are now vulnerable to attack not necessarily from Iran directly, but by members of what western media describe as Iranian proxies – such as Hezbollah and the various militias in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Iran’s many other supporters around the world.
Hence in reality, the US killing of Soleimani that was purportedly intended to protect US lives will almost certainly cause the deaths of very many more.
Political consequences will surely follow too. Mindful of the possibility of a repeat of past events such as the killing of 240 US Marines in Lebanon in a bomb attack in 1983 blamed on Hezbollah, increased security measures for US forces and diplomats may lead to a physical US withdrawal from some areas, and perhaps even whole countries.
The killing of Soleimani may also mark a tipping point in continued Arab and other tolerance of US forces being stationed in the Middle East, with increased impatience at continued US actions in for example Syria and Iraq that act to exacerbate tensions and instability, and that undermine the sovereignty and credibility of the very governments the US is claiming to support – hence for example today’s Iraq government condemnation of Soleimani’s killing.
Such US actions also act to further widen the gulf between US and its allies, for example in a Europe already alienated by US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent US sanctions, and may add further impetus to a European drive for a military capability that isn’t dependent on a US and UK dominated Nato.
Indeed, in respect of the nuclear deal and proliferation generally, the killing of course also risks sending a clear message: that if a country wants to avoid being attacked by a US that insists on its own self declared universal jurisdiction to kill citizens of other countries at will, then that country must acquire weapons of mass destruction. Certainly this is the lesson that so-called hard liners in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere will once again relearn.
All of these negative impacts for the US, as well as for ordinary people around the world including in Iran and the US, were entirely predictable.
Trump campaigned on a promise to the American people to end the US record of unnecessary and disastrous overseas interventions and wars. Despite this, US interventions around the world have continued – for example the catastrophic loss of life from US attacks in Afghanistan, the continued support of political and military groups overseas to pursue US interests, and the use of sanctions as a crippling blunt tool in an attempt to overthrow non compliant governments such as those of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran.
Nevertheless, his supporters have been right to claim that, just as he promised, Trump was a rare US president who hasn’t started any new wars. With the carrying out of an act of war by killing Soleimani however, this has now changed – and while the nature, time and place of Iran’s response to this act won’t be of Trump’s choosing, the wholly unnecessary provocation that will have caused the response certainly was.
Iran’s response to the US attack perhaps won’t be immediate, but almost certainly the response will come. To that extent, Iran and the US are in effect now in a state of undeclared war. That war is entirely of US making, and as so often with US wars the likely effects will be the deaths of innocent civilians and ordinary US and other soldiers, economic hardship as a result of oil price rises, and a further deterioration of US international standing and influence.
In short, and depending on how Iran chooses to respond, the killing of Soleimani may prove to be the most disastrous decision of Trump’s presidency, the full consequences of which may yet take years to unfold. Unless he can find a means of quickly reversing the situation he has now created, Trump’s legacy will be to have created, especially for the US, a very much more dangerous world.