Trump’s heedless provocation of Iran

The president may escape without a war - but that doesn’t justify the risk.

Demonstrations in Tehran following the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy in Baghdad.
Demonstrations in Tehran following the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy in Baghdad.ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

QASSEM SOLEIMANI, THE head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, was a bad guy. Of this there is no question.

He died early Friday, at the hands of a US drone strike, with the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands. His support for terrorist groups, strongman dictators, and Iran’s meddlesome regional policies have sowed discord and destruction across the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria to the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

But foreign policy is not a morality play and killing bad guys for the sake of killing bad guys is not a strategy.

Once again, the president has taken action without thinking through the consequences.


The administration has claimed both that the attack was preemptive — because Soleimani was allegedly plotting “imminent” attacks against Americans — and that it will be a deterrent against future Iranian provocations.

But if the killing was an act of deterrence it’s unlikely to have the desired short-term effect. Soleimani was a revered figure in Iran. Tehran will almost certainly feel compelled to react.

According to Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New America Security, the most likely Iranian response will be attacks on US targets in Iraq and possibly Lebanon — or even missile strikes on US bases in the Persian Gulf.

If that happens, the US may feel obligated to push back and the tit-for-tat has the potential to spark a broader conflict.

There are reasons to believe the situation won’t spin out of control. Iran has no desire to get into a larger shooting war with the United States military and understands that if it pokes the American bear too hard, the consequences could be severe.

Indeed, any clear-eyed observer of the Middle East would note that Iran brought some of this on itself. In June, a US military drone was shot down. In September, oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were bombed. And just days ago, Iran-backed militias staged an attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. Iran was provoking the US — and Tehran badly misjudged how Trump would respond.


None of that excuses the heedless risks the president has taken. And it doesn’t excuse Trump for sowing the seeds of the current crisis when he foolishly scrapped President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, in the naïve belief that he could negotiate a better agreement.

If there is any solace to be found in this situation, it is that for all of Trump’s childish bravado he has consistently resisted the inclination to engage in broader conflicts, preferring one-off actions that he thinks will cow rivals into compliance. There is little evidence to suggest that Trump is pining for a war with Iran — and up to this point, he’s demonstrated notable restraint in responding to Iranian provocations. For instance, he called off a military strike on Iran in September while US planes were in the air.

Oddly enough, if Iraq responds to the US targeting of Soleimani by ejecting American troops from the country, Trump might finally get his wish of extricating US forces from the Middle East.

In the end, if both sides can step back from the brink, the region may survive Trump’s latest ill-conceived foreign policy foray. But we can’t afford too many more.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.