Without the cooperation of people of good will at home and abroad, we face a disastrous war in the Middle East because Trump is desperate for something larger than impeachment as we approach the election.

First published in January 2020.

The drone strike assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, and several other senior Iranian and Iraqi officials on 3 January has placed the United States in a tacit state of war with Iran and complicated our difficult relationship with Iraq, as illustrated by the latter’s request for our forces to leave the country.

I will acknowledge here that Soleimani was a threat to the United States. The Quds Force is an Iranian military body for projecting power globally, a combination of special forces operations, the provision of logistics for terrorist organizations, and intelligence gathering.

Soleimani was returning from a visit to Lebanon or Syria. As to why he was in Iraq, according to Jane Arraf of National Public Radio, the Iraqi prime minister told parliament that Soleimani was “carrying response to Saudi initiative to defuse tension when he was hit.” And Mustafa Salim of The Washington Post expands on this, quoting the prime minister as saying, “I was supposed to meet Soleimani at the morning the day he was killed, he came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi to Iran.” Salim reports that the Iraqi parliament has voted to recommend the removal of all U.S. forces in their country, which would bring to end any American operations against the Islamic State in that country.

Trump’s supporters have been justifying this attack by claiming that it was allowed under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was passed in 2002 prior to the start of the second Iraq War and is still in effect today. But this law authorizes the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to — (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

There is no mention here of any permission to execute military action against Iran. If Congress had collectively had any sense, they would have included an expiration date in the AUMF, but even this seventeen year old blank check has its limits, and Trump has leapt far over whatever tenuous authority he has with regard to Iraq.

A president is allowed to act when there is an imminent threat of attack against U.S. interests, but even here, the assassination of Soleimani is questionable. The claim that the Iranian general was preparing a strike on Americans has been challenged both domestically and abroad, with Agnès Callamard, a special rapporteur for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggesting that killing Soleimani was an act of retaliation, not of self-defense. The moral considerations will not interest Trump and his supporters, but they should note that removing the leader of the Quds Force will not make the problem go away. The Iranian organization is not like ISIS. It is instead a branch of a national military, with all the logistical and institutional implications that such a status provides. And our action will have the effect of canceling out whatever sense of cautionmay have restrained the Iranian government.

An example of this is Iran’s announcement that they are pulling out of the 2015 deal to limit enrichment of uranium. Despite Trump’s breaking of America’s part of the accord, Iran and the European Union had treated the restrictions as still being applicable, but no more. As much as I do not want to see an apocalyptic regime in possession of nuclear weapons, I have to admit that when Russia invaded the Ukraine and while China is militarizing the South China Sea and North Korea rejects any international demands that they normalize their behavior with no sufficiently serious consequences, the availability of a nuclear deterrent looks like a rational desire.

What is happening here cannot be described as anything less than a desperate administration grasping at whatever remnants of support still exist. Trump and his supporters made bigotry a doctrine from the day he announced his run for the office by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. And now, American citizens of Iranian origin are being detained at a border crossing with Canada, one being told that “this is just the wrong time for you guys.” Mike Pence asserted falsely in a tweet that Soleimani had “assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States,” demonstrating a lack of awareness that Shia Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda are not likely to work together, as well as the administration’s long-standing disdain for the idea of evidence as a necessary basis for claims.

And though we live in an era of the triumph of the cliché, it must be said that an impeached president setting off a war with a country like Iran is the most brazen wagging of the dog that I have seen in my lifetime.

The fact is that Iran is not Albania, no matter what Trump may have learned from the Barry Levinson film. Nor is it Serbia. Or Iraq. Iran is a mountainous nation with a large population who may not like their current leaders but who hate foreign meddling. And for all the chants of “death to America” that the right wing cites, I have to ask how we would respond if Iran had removed a president from office and imposed a king on us, a king with his own secret police force who sold off our natural resources for the benefit of his foreign handlers. And I wonder how we would respond if Iran had aided our neighbors in fighting a decade-long war against us.

It is also worth observing that increased conflict with Iran plays into the policy aims of Saudi Arabia, a nation that does have ties to the 9/11 attacks and that is directly responsible for the murder of U.S. resident and journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The civil war in Yemen that has resulted in the deaths of possibly a hundred thousand with many more displaced and turned into a proxy war between the Saudi kingdom and Iran goes back to the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam. We made the conflict between these rival powers worse by removing the Sunni-supporting tyrant of Iraq and replacing him with a weak coalition that left the country open to Iran. And as the attack on Abqaiq oil field last September illustrates, Iran is willing to strike more than third parties in the region. If we can be led into a war with Iran, this would be a case of the Saudis tagging in a new champion for their cause.

The Iranian leadership has declared an intention to retaliate for the Soleimani assassination, and tens of thousands of Tehran’s residents came out for a rally in his memorial. Pragmatically speaking, a war with Iran would be a terrible idea. As suggested above, the Quds Force remains capable of strikes far beyond the borders of Iran, and while the United States holds a significant technological lead, our options are limited, especially now that Iraq is telling us to leave. An invasion, presuming that we could move sufficient forces to the region, would face difficult territory and a population of millions who will not welcome us, no matter how optimistic Trump and his supporters may be. And given Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites if we are hit — a response that would be a war crime — the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces is not up to the task of major military operations.

If we had any credibility — say, the global good will for America that we enjoyed during the Obama administration — we could use a combination of diplomacy and the potential for the use of force to bring down the tensions between Iran and the United States. As things stand, Iran is poised to make short-term gains and possibly to secure dominance in the Middle East. Russia and China cannot mind seeing a main rival once again bogged down, and the latter would be pleased to continue their role as the developer of infrastructure who makes no criticisms about human rights.

The only outs available in a hurry are the elements of the U.S. government that can talk down a president and the diplomatic skills of the Europeans. Congress needs to exercise their power by making an unequivocal statement to Trump that no authorization for military force will be given and no funding will be provided. They would be accused by the right wing of being traitors, but that is just the ordinary political conversation these days. They would be blamed by the right if American soldiers lose their lives in operations that Trump could get away with prior to being stopped. But any war with Iran must be stopped, and just as with impeachment, holding back a catastrophic military blunder is more important than temporary political advantage.

Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites — such as the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, for example — would be considered a war crime. / Flickr - xiquinhosilva

The military has options as well. They are supposed to obey the orders of our civilian leadership, but general officers can resign, which would leave our armed forces unable to fight quickly, and no one in the military is obliged to follow the illegal orders that Trump is threatening to issue. Internationally, the European Union can step in to attempt to talk the United States down. Trump is not known for his willingness to listen, but if peace can be framed in terms of a trade deal, he might be persuaded.

Unfortunately, Trump is desperate for something larger than impeachment as we approach the election. Without the cooperation of people of good will at home and abroad, we face a disastrous war that a new president will need years to get us out of. America’s reputation and moral standing might never recover.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 7 January 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/The White House-Shealah Craighead. - President Trump delivers remarks during a press conference following the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that resulted in the death of Iranian commander Qassim Soleimani. | 3 Jan 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)