If war breaks out between the United States and Iran, triggered by the assassination of the Iranian mastermind of international meddling and terrorism, we might learn that there is a limit to how much President Donald Trump can be taunted.
Trump had heard pundits say that the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would become “Trump’s Benghazi.” Wearing a tuxedo while chatting with reporters at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve, Trump declared: “This will never, ever be a Benghazi.” In 2012, four Americans in Libya were killed by terrorists, and the State Department’s security failures haunted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for years.
Trump’s highly visible reaction was dramatic: ordering that thousands of troops be mobilized, including the addition of more Marines to protect diplomats in Iraq. The campaign promise to disengage from “endless wars” seems to have been forgotten.
The invisible reaction was even more significant: ordering the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian national hero who spread Islamic revolutionary fervor throughout the Middle East. Trump blamed Iran for the assault on the embassy, and intelligence briefers almost surely told him that this was the work of Soleimani. The briefing also could have included that as head of the Qods Force, the most aggressive unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani directed terrorism and plots to damage Israel and weaken the United States.
While Trump was learning about this enemy of America, Soleimani brazenly continued with his bloody business as usual. He flew into Baghdad International Airport, where he was picked up by Iraqi militia leaders, and they shared his fate when U.S. aircraft fired missiles that destroyed their vehicles near the airport.
But did Trump consider all the ramifications? Does he understand that Americans throughout the world, even here in the United States, could be targets for Iranian retaliation?
The answers would probably not be comforting, but the greater concern is the possibility that the president is stumbling into war with a stubborn country that can order terrorist strikes virtually anywhere on Earth. After suffering massive casualties in prior wars, Iran’s religious dictators thrive on death, mourning, and a burning quest for revenge.
Since Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, he often predicted that the ayatollahs would eventually beg for negotiations with the United States. In August, he said that Iran “can be a great nation,” and he would like to see that happen, “but they can’t have nuclear weapons.” He tried to arrange a meeting with Iran’s president during Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the UN in September, but the Iranian leader refused.
Iran shot down a U.S. drone this year, attacked ships in the Persian Gulf, and damaged an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. The United States and its allies seemed to do nothing beyond complaining, but a White House official pointed to Trump’s tweet on June 25: “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force.” Trump added the word “obliteration” and his habitual claim that he would be much tougher than his predecessor: “No more John Kerry & Obama!”
A Rubicon was crossed on Dec. 27, when an American contractor was killed by a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. Trump ordered retaliation against a Shiite Muslim militia financed by Soleimani, and an impressive wave of airstrikes on five bases killed 25 guerrilla fighters. Their sympathizers responded by attacking the U.S. Embassy.
Trump continued to tweet, play golf, and ostensibly relax in Florida. There was no indication that he had ordered the killing of a senior Iranian official. The president could have chosen never to acknowledge responsibility, but he opted to demonstrate that he is a tough guy. He may well think that the hit in Baghdad is a useful message to North Korea.
Trump also has found a way to distract from the stalemated impeachment process that he dismisses anyway as a “big fat hoax.”
Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent for i24News and author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”