No, Mr. President, it does really matter

The New York Times – After millions of Iranians turned out to mourn the American assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, it was surprising, and heartening, to see Iranian students bravely protesting their government’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian jetliner.

These students understood that by sowing discord around the region, their nation’s leaders were bound to reap tragic, unintended consequences.

The current conflict itself is largely a result of Mr. Trump’s renouncing the nuclear deal President Barack Obama achieved in 2015 along with Britain, France, China, Germany and Russia, and then reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran. And the targeted killing of General Suleimani was not only dubious in legal and moral terms, but also an act that may well backfire before long with some vicious retaliatory strike by Iran or one of its proxies.

The killing, moreover, served to further distance Washington from its European allies, none of which were notified in advance of a potentially incendiary action, and none of which endorsed it after the fact.

The subsequent decision by Germany, France and Britain to formally accuse Iran of breaking the 2015 deal by announcing it was no longer bound by its limitations, setting off a dispute mechanism, may not have been the show of solidarity that it seemed to be at first. While the Europeans were considering the action, the Trump administration had secretly threatened to impose a 25 percent tariff on their automobiles if they didn’t take the action, The Washington Post reported.

The killing had all the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s disjointed approach to foreign affairs. Assassination is illegal in international law and taboo American foreign policy, facts Mr. Trump’s national security team seemed to acknowledge when it initially issued inconsistent and unsubstantiated claims that General Suleimani was killed to prevent a big strike in which many Americans would have died. Mr. Trump ended the charade on Monday when he tweeted that “it doesn’t really matter” what the Iranian was up to. “Bad person, killed a lot of Americans, killed a lot of people. We killed him,” was the president’s typical sledgehammer response to dealing with the outside world.

That explanation pleased hawks who chafe at any restraint on the use of American muscle. “To put it simply,” as Senator Tom Cotton, the hawkish Republican from Arkansas, wrote in The Times, “the ayatollahs are once again afraid of the United States because of this bold action, which is forcing them to recalculate their odds.”

But having been forced into a corner by America’s sanctions and facing mounting discontent at home, they may well conclude that more mayhem gives the best odds. On Friday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called protesters “stooges of the United States,” and said Iranian missile attacks on American bases were “a slap to U.S.’s image as a superpower.”

For now, the president and his national security team can brag that the killing did not provoke the feared escalation, that after a perfunctory retaliatory strike on an American base in which 11 service members were injured, Tehran agreed, via an urgent exchange of messages through Swiss diplomatic intermediaries, to stand down.

But Iran is not likely to leave the death of a national hero unavenged for long. In an asymmetrical conflict, a show of American military muscle is not a sure deterrent, and Iran is likely to redouble its efforts to drive American troops out of Iraq through its Shia proxy militias there.

Then what? That is the question that sets alarm bells off among American allies whenever Mr. Trump makes a foray into foreign affairs. Is there a plan for when Iran retaliates, other than empty threats to attack cultural sites? Are discussions underway with allies on how to bring Iran to the negotiating table on a new nuclear deal? Or is the Trump administration actually prepared to go to war with Iran?