Qassem Soleimani assassinating leaves Trump’s Middle East strategy in tatters

Bloomberg | Nick Wadhams and David Wainer: U.S. President Donald Trump and his top aides spent the weekend arguing that the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani would deter future attacks and make the Middle East safer.

Instead, U.S. policy in the region seems to be going in the opposite direction of what Trump has long promised—with more U.S. troops going in, not fewer; an Iran defiant, not cowed and broken by sanctions; and regional allies giving only lukewarm support to Trump’s airstrike instead of rallying around it.

Economic costs of the strike are also mounting: oil surged above $70 a barrel on Monday and equities around the world extended losses. Havens climbed, with gold rising to the highest in more than six years.

The political backlash came quickly, as the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State was forced to suspend operations and Iraq’s parliament on Sunday called for U.S. troops to withdraw. Trump responded by saying Iraq could face sanctions and would have to “reimburse” America. Iran said it would abandon limits on uranium enrichment put in place as part of a 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump abandoned in 2018.

U.S actions have “made an already volatile situation much more dangerous,” said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities who favors a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. “If you paid any attention to Iran in the last 40 years you know they will never buckle to that kind of pressure. It’s just the opposite.”

The strike on Soleimani appeared to unite Iranians after months of protests against their own government, with hundreds of thousands turning out to mourn a military chief who had made their nation — battered by U.S. economic sanctions — appear strong by giving Tehran leverage in conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Iran has vowed revenge, and allies including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that they’d now seek to drive out the more than 50,000 U.S. troops from the region.

“It united most political forces in Iraq against the U.S.,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Trump administration monstrously miscalculated by playing into Iran’s hands.”

The fight against Islamic State was immediately hampered, with the U.S.-led coalition saying it would suspend operations in Iraq to focus on protecting bases that have come under attack. Threats from Iran-backed militias have previously forced staff drawdowns in U.S. diplomatic missions across the country.

Iraq serves as the home base for operations against Islamic State. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One late Sunday that the U.S. wouldn’t leave unless it got paid back for the “billions” spent on an air base there.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” he said. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

The escalating tensions hit markets starting Friday and continuing through Monday. Oil futures jumped an additional 3% on Monday after the State Department warned of a “heightened risk” of missile attacks near military and energy facilities in Saudi Arabia. Japanese, Hong Kong and South Korean equities fell, and U.S. and European futures retreated.

After Trump and Iranian officials traded public threats about future reprisals, the U.S. leader will now face questions from lawmakers returning to Washington from the end-of-year break ready to take up a bitter debate over the president’s impeachment by the Democratic-led House and a coming trial in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In the U.S., reaction to the raid has fallen mostly along party lines, with Republicans hailing the elimination of a leader responsible for terror attacks and Democrats questioning the administration’s assertion that Soleimani presented an “imminent threat.” They’re also asking whether Trump has a broader strategy or plan to deal with the aftermath.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, sent a letter to the chamber’s lawmakers announcing a vote this week on a resolution that would limit Trump’s power in any potential military actions regarding Iran.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo argued the administration’s case on Sunday news shows after more than a dozen calls with foreign counterparts from China to Saudi Arabia.

He said there were no doubts about the intelligence behind the decision to kill Soleimani, and that any moves taken against Tehran will be “lawful.” That was a response to concerns about Trump’s threat on Saturday to hit “52 Iranian sites” including cultural targets if Tehran retaliates. Trump’s comment raised concerns because attacks against cultural property are prohibited under the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Defense Department’s rules of engagement.

“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Despite Pompeo’s international outreach, there were few signs of strong support among key U.S. allies beyond Israel, while the NATO alliance planned an emergency meeting Monday to discuss growing tensions in the region. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson summed up European reaction to the strike on Soleimani, saying “we will not lament his death,” but “we are in close contact with all sides to encourage de-escalation.”

Working to the U.S. advantage is Iran’s dire economic situation following increasingly tight U.S. sanctions that have largely wiped out the country’s ability to sell oil abroad and cut it off from most trade partners. And some analysts said the political tensions in Iran will only be briefly masked by Soleimani’s death.

Pompeo seemed to minimize the significance of Iraq’s parliament calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, suggesting that outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi—who said he was due to meet with Soleimani the morning he was killed about de-escalation efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia—was acting under enormous pressure from Tehran.

Pompeo said the U.S. was a force for good in Iraq, 17 years after it invaded to oust Saddam Hussein. But the overthrow of the Sunni dictator in 2003 provided an opening that Iran has steadily exploited since, deepening its influence over Shia-majority Iraq. The parliament vote fell along sectarian and ethnic lines, with Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers abstaining.

It’s unlikely U.S. troops will leave Iraq anytime soon, but Sunday’s vote was damning for Trump and U.S. plans for the region. The diplomatic compound in Baghdad was constructed after the 2003 invasion to be the biggest American embassy in the world, designed to essentially serve as a forward operating base and a listening post in the Middle East.

With his latest deployment of about 3,500 troops to Kuwait, Trump has bolstered American forces by about 17,000 personnel since May, undermining his vow to get the country out of “endless wars.”

“Rarely has any single tactical move, untethered from any long-range thinking, produced so many potential strategically negative consequences for the U.S.,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In one single decision you’ve undermined 17 years of a U.S. mission, fraught though it may be.”