Donald Trump’s decision to eliminate General Qasem Suleimani, N°2 of the Iranian Regime, undeniably transforms a conflict that was slowly simmering into a sudden powder keg. It is undoubtedly the most dangerous and risky decision taken by an American President since the 2nd Gulf War in March 2003.
Donald Trump had to re-establish a policy of deterrence and to demonstrate to the highest Iranian authorities that their attacks against targets in friendly countries (Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates) would not go unpunished. For a President who wanted to withdraw his troops from the Middle East cauldron, it will now be difficult to escape from it, until the end of his first term in January 2021 or 2025, if re-elected.
Donald Trump engaged his country in a conflict which harbors many unknowns. It may not be a conventional war, as Iranians prefer to excel in an asymmetric conflict. The Ayatollahs’ regime will not go for a frontal clash with the United States but will do everything possible to provoke a significant number of American casualties in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq where, following a vote in parliament, the 5,200 soldiers stationed in the country will, in principle, have to reposition themselves. But there is no shortage of American targets around the world.
Nevertheless, for an American President who oscillates between his isolationist impulses and his desire to project an image of power to his enemies throughout the world, the revolt of a majority of Iraqis against Iraqi regime, subservient to Iran, may reinforce the desire to maintain an american military presence in the region, especially at a time of resurgence of the Islamic State.
Whether we agree or not, the elimination of Suleimani is an act of self-defence. Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of several hundred victims, whether American or other nationalities, in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, and was planning further attacks.
At the same time, Donald Trump finds himself confronted with the growing threat from Iran, which has just signed the death certificate of the July 2015 nuclear agreement. Suleimani’s death will indeed not prevent the Iranians from accelerating their quest for nuclear power, a year from now, according to experts.
This could prompt the United States and Israel to carry out cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear sites. So far, sanctions have been essentially economic and have crippled the country’s economy. The regime is on the brink of collapse in the face of a majority of Iranians who want its downfall, but it has not yet capitulated.
If Donald Trump realizes that this regime only understands the balance of power, by adding military pressure to economic sanctions, then 2020 will perhaps see the fall of Iran’s “Ayatollarchy” that has been in power for 40 years, for too long.
* International policy expert and diplomatic consultant.