Following the assassination on Friday of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, what’s next? Obviously nobody knows, but U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy seems clear enough—if one is willing to take off the every-so-fashionable ideological glasses and cease ranting endlessly about his unpredictability and incompetence.
To begin with, Trump is sincere when he says he doesn’t want war, as is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he reiterates that sparking a war wasn’t the aim of Soleimani’s execution. Though it is understood that an escalation could be on the horizon, depending on how the Iranians react, World War III is certainly not the plan.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took quite some time before getting involved in World War II; in democracies wars are never popular—especially in the run-up to elections. If anything, the problem is that Iran isn’t a democracy, and is guided by a messianic vision of a final clash between Gog and Magog for the triumph of the Mahdi, the Shi’ite messiah. However, Iran’s leadership is also calculating and skillful, and now knows that Trump isn’t full of hot air.
Iran initiated a policy of escalation in May 2019, threatening shipping in the Persian Gulf and shooting down a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz. In September it targeted Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, and then in December killed a U.S. defense contractor and wounded several American and Iraqi troops in a rocket attack on a military compound in Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
In response to December rocket attack, the United States struck targets in Iraq and Syria controlled by the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades, a Shi’ite militia group.
Iran then commanded its Iraqi proxies and their supporters to besiege the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which they did on Dec. 31. Evoking the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and that of Benghazi in Libya towards the end of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s first mandate, this proved to be a step too far.
Trump reacted by ordering the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the militia commander behind the embassy attack, together with Soleimani. Was he right to do so? Yes, even legally: According to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a Democrat, “Trump had more legal justification [for] eliminating Soleimani than Obama had with Osama bin Laden.” In fact, Soleimani was a uniformed member of an enemy army who was actively planning to kill Americans, while bin Laden was not a member of an official armed force but a defeated terrorist on the run.
Ever since 2018, when Trump withdrew from Iran nuclear deal, he has taken a very tough line against the Iranian regime, imposing stiff sanctions on the regime. He made his case for backing out of the deal very well. Iran showed no signs of wanting to abide by the agreement and behaved aggressively by advancing its ballistic missile program and its imperialist regional agenda. In fact, Iran never stopped manufacturing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and, as Israel’s Mossad intelligence service later demonstrated, pursuing atomic weapons.
Despite the U.S. pressure, however, Iran has neither slowed down its nuclear program nor sought a new relationship with the United States. On the contrary, under Soleimani’s military command, Iran’s policy, strongly supported by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was to move against Sunni powers in the region and to besiege Israel. It strengthened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon and employed its fighters in Syria, and weakened Saudi Arabia via its Houthi proxies in Yemen.
In addition, it sought to terrorize Israel with the help of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and here it encountered a strategic novelty: a pro-Israel American president, who has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s historical capital as well as Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Iran also opened its doors to Russia and China, and countering this trend is also a salient point in America’s global strategy.
There were many sobs and threats of revenge heard yesterday in Iran and Iraq, including from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and it Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—but there were also many dancing with joy at seeing the man who in 2009 had ordered his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to open fire on crowds of protesting Iranians and who had acted as an oppressor in Iraq.
So what will Trump do now? He will continue to support the Sunni countries while maintaining the war on Islamic State and countering Tehran. If there are attacks at sea, he will respond at sea, if they come from the sky he will destroy drones and planes, and if Iran’s proxy militias—Hezbollah or the Houthis or even Syrians and Iraqis—undertake hostile acts on its behalf, they will become targets.
It’s difficult to imagine a land invasion of a huge and highly populated country such as Iran. It is however easy to imagine that Trump hopes an international earthquake will facilitate regime change, that the Iranian people who are disappointed by and suffering from their government’s expensive imperialist policy will attempt to turn the page. This is the most probable American strategy.
But where is Europe? Will it finally realize that it risks being overwhelmed by a war in the Middle East, and not because of Trump but because of terrorism and Islamist ideologies? Will it stop muttering Kabbalistic adjurations, with Trump being depicted as, of course, the Great Satan, and Israel as the little one?
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.