About that Iranian general

(Credit: Getty Images)

Remember that Iranian general the United States assassinated back in January? The one whose killing the Trump administration justified as necessary to stop imminent attacks on American targets?

Just kidding on that imminence thing.

In the legally required notice outlining the legal and policy rationale behind the killing of Qassem Soleimani delivered to Congress today, the Trump administration dropped all assertions that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force was assassinated to prevent an imminent attack.

While the notice argues that under Article II of the Constitution the president has the power as commander-in-chief to authorize military in the face of an imminent threat of attack against the United States, the notice carefully avoids making any such claim of imminence in its statement of the facts surrounding the Jan. 2 operation:

The President directed this action in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region. The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to United States interests.

No mention of an impending attack there. Nor in this later passage:

Iran’s past and recent activities, coupled with intelligence at the time of the air strike, indicated that Iran’s Qods Force posed a threat to the United States in Iraq, and the air strike against Soleimani was intended to protect United States personnel and deter future Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq and threats emanating from Iraq.

So, to summarize, why did the United States kill Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, bringing us to the brink of war with Iran?

  • In response to prior attacks
  • In response to an escalating series of attacks
  • To deter Iran from making future attacks
  • To deter future Iranian attack plans
  • To degrade the capabilities of Iran and its Iraqi militia proxies

None of this amounts to the kind of immediate threat that the Trump administration claimed required it to assassinate the highest-ranking military leader of a rival government. Instead, it sounds like a deliberate, premeditated, act of war. Looks like I was right when I wrote this a month ago:

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

Just Security has posted a lengthy and detailed analysis of the Trump administration’s notice to Congress. You can read it here.

That the Trump administration lied about its justification for killing Soleimani is probably the least surprising fact in the whole sordid affair. The most surprising is that they complied with the law and reported to Congress at all.

Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.

This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.

Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.