The Irish Times view on US-Iran tensions: Washington’s strategic blunder
Nowhere is US policy confusion more apparent, nor more dangerous, than on the question of Iran’s nuclear programme
Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone strike on Friday, in the city of Kerman, Iran. Photograph: Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP
The Trump administration maintains, without offering evidence, that it assassinated the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani last week because he was planning an attack against American interests. While the killing of a figure as influential as Suleimani – the chief conduit between Tehran and its network of proxy militias across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran over the past 20 years – will inevitably disrupt Iran’s external activities and dent its ambitions in the Middle East, it is clear that it has also dealt a blow to US foreign policy aims in the region.
The most immediate danger is to American lives. Ayatollah Ali Khemenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has vowed “forceful revenge” for the American drone strike. US diplomatic missions, soldiers and civilians in the region are all on high alert. That will suit the leadership in Tehran, which may well opt to delay any military response so as to let the current moment run its course.
In some of the biggest public gatherings in the country since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, millions have taken to the streets to mourn Suleimani. Among the crowds are many Iranians who just last week were protesting about living standards. International sympathy for Suleimani himself may be in short supply, but Washington’s move to escalate its conflict with Iran so dramatically has, not for the first time in the Trump era, left Iran looking the more strategically-minded of the two adversaries.
Trump tweeted that the US would respond to any Iranian attack by bombing its cultural sites – a war crime – only for the Pentagon to disavow the idea outright
For while Washington insists the decision to kill Suleimani was the result of a careful deliberative process, it looks increasingly like an ill-considered blunder. The Iraqi parliament has voted to force US troops to leave the country, prompting Trump to threaten the country – a US ally – with sanctions. Then the US military sent a letter to its Iraqi counterpart announcing its intention to withdraw, only to dismiss talk of a pullout just hours later. Meanwhile, Trump tweeted that the US would respond to any Iranian attack by bombing its cultural sites – a war crime – only for the Pentagon to disavow the idea outright. Washington’s strategic confusion is total, in other words.
Nowhere is that confusion more apparent, nor more dangerous, than on the question of Iran’s nuclear programme. On Sunday, Tehran announced that it was abandoning most of its commitments under the nuclear containment deal agreed with the US and other world powers in 2015. Iran will never have nuclear weapons, Trump reiterated this week. But it was he who caused to collapse the Obama-era deal that was already achieving that very goal. If the Trump administration continues on its present course, it will eventually find itself facing the same choice Obama wrestled with: allow Iran to build nuclear weapons or bomb it. Obama’s solution to that dilemma was his historic nuclear deal. Trump has left himself no such room for manoeuvre.