iran politics Trump

‘Iran Appears To Be Standing Down’: Trump Cancels World War III, A Postmortem

It could have been worse.

Donald Trump on Wednesday addressed the nation following Iran’s counterstrikes against US interests in Iraq.

In keeping with the general narrative emanating from experts and analysts in the hours after more than a dozen rockets struck targets where American troops were stationed, Trump suggested that the IRGC may not have intended to kill anyone.

There were no US casualties and only “minimal” damage. “Iran appears to be standing down”, Trump said.


Predictably, the president delivered a lengthy diatribe documenting the crimes of Qassem Soleimani, whose hands Trump said were “drenched in American blood”.

Although the administration will likely never admit that whatever attacks Soleimani was planning with Kataib Hezbollah were no different in scope or in character than those he’s orchestrated previously, Trump did appear to tacitly acknowledge that the drone strike on the commander was intended primarily as a kind of final “once and for all” warning to Tehran.

It’s worth emphasizing that nobody in the administration has attempted to provide any context for the public with regard to the crucial distinction between on one hand, Soleimani, the Quds, Hezbollah and Iran’s other regional proxies, and, on the other, the Sunni extremist groups responsible for attacks on scores of civilians in Western cities like Paris, London and New York. In short, there is never any mention of the fact that Soleimani was first and foremost a soldier. He was a tactician and a strategist, concerned above all with cementing the Shia crescent and projecting Iranian influence in the region. Butcher? Maybe. Indiscriminate butcher? No.

Does that distinction really matter? Maybe not, in the final analysis, and certainly not for the families of those Americans killed by Iran’s proxies in Iraq in the years since the invasion. But that doesn’t mean the distinction isn’t real.

America has been at war in Iraq for 16 years. Soleimani has been at war with Iraq or in Iraq essentially since childhood. He was “at the vanguard of Iran’s revolutionary generation, joining the IRGC in his early 20s after the 1979 uprising that enshrined the country’s Shiite theocracy”, The New York Times wrote last week, in a lengthy obituary, adding that he “rose quickly during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s”.

In recent years, he was on the frontlines in theatre. He commanded Hezbollah and other Shia militia under cover of Russian air power in Syria in the fight to retake Aleppo from the Sunni opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Not every faction of the opposition was comprised of extremists, but many (if not most) of them were. Of course, Assad is himself associated with, and directly responsible for, all manner of atrocities. Because he owes his life to Soleimani (without whom Damascus would almost surely have fallen to a Sunni-led coalition comprised at least in part of jihadists), it is impossible not to lay some of the blame for Assad’s war crimes at Soleimani’s feet.

Soleimani also commanded Shia militia in Iraq in 2015 during the assault to retake Tikrit from ISIS. The air power in that battle was provided by the US military.

And yet, his exploits which resulted in the deaths of Americans and his role in Hezbollah’s rise understandably take precedence in the minds of Western observers. He was once implicated in a plan to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia and as the Times summarizes, Soleimani, along with Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah, “drove a sophisticated campaign of guerrilla warfare, combining ambushes, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, targeted killings of senior Israeli officers and attacks on Israeli defense posts”, during his earlier years at the head of the Quds.

In war, people are killed. In war, people are maimed. Soleimani died at war last week. He would have had it no other way.

To implicitly put Soleimani in the same category as, for example, Bakr al-Baghdadi (a coward, a psychopath, a serial killer and a rapist) is to diminish the meaning of the word “soldier”. Baghdadi’s Wikipedia page lists him as a “military commander”. That is, frankly, disgraceful to anyone who, like Soleimani or like the scores of US soldiers who have died since 2003 in the Mideast, has ever fought in a war.

To his credit, Trump did, towards the end of his remarks, make clear that ISIS is the “natural enemy of Iran” and he called on the Iranian leadership to join the US in ensuring that Sunni extremism doesn’t resurface.

He left out quite a bit of key information, not least of which is that in Soleimani, the US assassinated the man Sunni extremists like ISIS feared most in the world. To say his demise does not help the anti-ISIS cause would be a good candidate for understatement of the year. That isn’t to say he didn’t back-channel with extremists over the years for the sake of expediency (he was, after all, a legendary intelligence operative), but the simple fact of the matter is that more than any other single man, Soleimani was responsible for the destruction of the ISIS caliphate.

Trump also failed to mention that the ideology espoused by ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups is institutionalized in the Saudi monarchy. The characterization of Iran as the “number-one state sponsor of terror” is more or less accurate depending on who it is that’s applying the label. That is, if you’re Israel, then it is unquestionably accurate to castigate the IRGC and especially the Quds as an intolerable sponsor of a terrorist group which sits right on your doorstep in Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah). If you’re the US, that label makes less sense. In fact, it would make more sense from the perspective of the West if it were applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other Sunni powers in the region. Just ask Qatar how hypocritical are the Saudis’ pretensions to being concerned about terrorism.

The US, according to the president’s remarks, will be slapping Iran with new sanctions, but will apparently refrain from military action – for now.

Read our full coverage of the Qassem Soleimani assassination

Trump reserved some of his harshest criticism on Wednesday for Barack Obama, going so far as to say, explicitly, that the previous administration paid for the missiles launched at US positions on Wednesday morning in Iraq. That is unbecoming of a US president.

He also said that following the nuclear deal, Iran “went on a terrorist spree funded by the money and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq”, a ridiculous account of recent Mideast history that can only be described as wholly inaccurate.

During a tangent, the president touted America’s missiles, which he called “big, powerful, lethal and fast”. Hypersonic weapons are “under construction”, he remarked, in a rather transparent allusion to Vladimir Putin.

Trump also lauded America’s energy independence on the way to suggesting that he would be asking NATO to take on a more proactive role in the Mideast because, quote, “we don’t need their oil”.

Finally, the president called on the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China to “deal with reality” and accept that the nuclear deal is no more.

All in all, Trump’s remarks came as a relief to a nervous public and certainly to a jittery market. Stocks surged as he spoke.

The president’s address was far from eloquent, but, like Iran’s counterstrikes, it could have been worse.


11 comments on “‘Iran Appears To Be Standing Down’: Trump Cancels World War III, A Postmortem

  1. mfn says:

    Nice post and summary (per usual). As much as anything, the events of the last 72 hours have revealed the Iranian regime to be a paper tiger and, for the moment at any rate, more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Iranian revolution throughout the region. Because I’m constitutionally incapable of giving Trump credit for anything, I’m going to say he got lucky this time. Would be nice — and a boon to his reelection chances — if he took this opportunity to sit down in earnest with the Iranian leadership and try to come to a win-win agreement. Forty years after the revolution, the Iranian people would like nothing more, the American people would like nothing more, and maybe even the mullahs are ready to deescalate.

    One thing we’ll never know, though, is whether the Putin signaled to Trump that he would be okay with a hit on Soleimani. After all, and as others have pointed out in this forum, the general was an obstacle to Russia’s larger ambitions in the region.

    • No he was not an obstacle. That makes no sense. I went over that in previous comments. It was Soleimani who brought Russia into the conflict in Syria.

      To suggest that Putin was complicit in this is wildly implausible. I’m not sure where you guys/gals are getting that, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics.

      Here, read this:

      • this is, of course, not to say that I have some kind of inside information on what goes on in the Kremlin, god knows anything is possible in these kinds of ordeals, but my point is that it doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of what regular people, operating with public information, who have followed the Syria conflict would surmise.

        • Anonymous says:

          However, Putin would know what effect the killing would have on Iraqs relation with the USA and is ready to step in to replace the US and its allies in training Iraqi military and fighting ISIS, as they have done in Syria. Qasem Soleimani was also a powerful and respected tactician who could teach the CIA how to run a proxy war, and wouldn’t allow Russia to manipulate him. Putin would, no doubt, prefer to deal with a more compliant partner as he extends his influence in the ME. On the other hand, I’ve probably read too many John Le Carre novels!

  2. George says:

    Pertaining to this Putin/Soleimani debate experience teaches us all things are possible in world in which both these men were proficient. Whereas I agree with H….. that the dynamics do not indicate a Putin role in Suleimani’s demise but a more plausible reason is that there was a tremendous level of respect between the two men that transcends and thus negates that possibility…..Agreed , that is an intuitive assessment on my part !!!!

  3. jyl says:

    If Trump finds a face-saving way to remove US forces from Iraq, that would be a public relations “win” for him, as well as a huge real victory for Iran. Iraq will become more closely aligned with Iran. Iran could sell oil through Iraq (assuming Trump doesn’t block Iraqi oil.) The long term consequences for MidEast stability are unclear.

  4. jyl says:

    From a military perspective, the Iranian missiles appear somewhat accurate and effective. 10-12 (?) missiles launched, at least 5 hit targets with accuracy.

    Unsure how well defended these bases were, they may not have had Patriot/CIWS defenses.

    I think Iran has proved their ballistic missiles can accurately strike targets within at least 500 miles. If launchers are in western Iran, that means they can strike Riyadh. If launchers are in western iraq, they can strike Israel.

  5. jyl says:

    Sorry, more reading – reports that Patriots intercepted 3 missiles targeting Erbil airbase. Also, Iran has ballistic missiles with much longer range, but AFAIk they are not combat-proven yet.

  6. calh0025 says:

    The world gets stranger by the minute. When does Iran announce it has made nukes?

  7. jamaican says:

    I would not be so sure that we have seen the end of this.
    Somehow it feels insufficient for Iran to bomb some barracks in the Iraqi desert without any casualties and call it even.
    After all, this was some sort of national hero (however twisted that might sound).
    It’s hard to imagine the populace, which has just now conveniently rallied behind the leadership, forgetting about the bloody protests just a couple weeks ago, is satisfied by some pro-forma bombing.
    Would be great, though, but kinda hard to believe.

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