Trump’s Foreign Policy Legacy Will Be a Nuclear Iran
Contrary to petty retorts from Republicans, critics of the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani ought not concern themselves with the irrelevant question of whether Soleimani was a decent person (he was not). Similarly, this is not a debate over whether Iran is a helpful or productive player in global affairs (it is not).
The real question is whether the United States, courtesy of its overwhelming military force, has the princely freedom to murder anyone of their choosing the world over — playing judge, jury and executioner, all with one drone strike, in breach of a long and toothless list of domestic and international laws.
And given that the answer to the preceding question would appear to be a depressing yes, with American allies queuing up to (seemingly unironically) warn Iran to “refrain from further violence and provocations”, it is worth considering the precarious situation Iran finds itself in. If the world’s strongest laws and norms against the use of force have zero effect on America — whose president is threatening further strikes against 52 cultural sites in the country — it’s not clear where else Iran can turn.
Game Theory for Bullies
There are many concerning elements to the baffling decision by the Trump administration to assassinate one of Iran’s leading generals, with such needless consequences for the credibility of the global order. From the White House, the long-term planning behind the operation appears characteristically absent. When asked about how the White House would have discussed the Soleimani strike, former defense under-secretary Michèle Flournoy said:
Very serious decisions are brought to the president without a whole lot of vetting and exploration of second- and third-order consequences. So, they clearly presented a set of tactical options to him. Either the strategic consequences weren’t explored and explained or he didn’t care to listen to that.
I’m honestly not sure which is worse: that the Trump White House might not have considered the impact of Soleimani’s assassination on Iran’s sense of existential peril, or if it just didn’t care.
No matter your view of Iran, putting the country in the position that America has done is a strategic misstep if you are concerned about the prospect of another nuclear-armed state (let alone a nuclear-armed state isolated and alienated in the international community — one of those is quite enough).
Again, the past actions or character flaws of Soleimani are not relevant when considering the geopolitical reality America has forced on Iran: confirmation that international laws and norms will not protect Iran even from brazen threats and attacks. Even if you swallow the American line that killing Soleimani was a legitimate “pre-emptive, defensive strike”, what on Earth is defensive or legitimate about targeting ancient Iranian cultural sites?
The threat to commit war crimes is a moral disgrace (notwithstanding that Iran is no war crime Samaritan), but the more important signal is pure geopolitics: that all parts of the Iranian state are vulnerable to unilateral American attack, no matter how many international laws and norms would seem to render the action illegal. Soleimani’s murder also shows that even the most senior leaders are at risk — so the Ayatollah and other Iranian leaders face the double paranoia of an existential threat to Iran as well as the credible risk to their own lives.
Nothing short of assassinating the Ayatollah himself could have more successfully enflamed hostility in Tehran towards America, and undermined willingness in Iran to co-operate and trust the global system. America’s drone strike exposed the chasm in global politics between the West and its nominal adversaries — and showed that the tribal allegiances to a powerful superpower counted for far more than niceties like the international law on use of force.
By forcibly demonstrating the latent fragility of global laws and norms, America has ensured that Iran is left only with the basest rules of all — the law of the jungle, where the mighty rule and the weak are impotent. With such an overwhelming confirmation of something the Iranian leadership already likely suspected, the logical conclusion to draw is that a bristling nuclear arsenal — the ultimate security guarantee — is the only long-term option for Iranian survival.
As I write this, tensions appear to be cooling between the White House and Iran — something to be cautiously thankful for, even if the Trump news cycle changes at wild pace with further escalations only a presidential tweetstorm away.
It’s almost comical that our best case scenario is that President Trump ratcheted up tensions with Iran so that the spectre of war would hang over Americans as they go to the ballot box in November. Nobody is better than Trump at burning tentative relationships with American adversaries, causing the very crisis he then attempts to resolve in some kind of psychotic live demonstration of the ‘Art of the Deal’.
Even if Trump’s aim is only self-centred political posturing, rather than an actual war with Iran, the second-and-third-order consequences of the Soleimani assassination will ripple through Iran and the Middle East. Just two days after the drone strike, Iran announced that it will no longer abide by centrifuge limits, an important step towards a nuclear program.
While America prepares for a general election, Iran prepares to defend itself from attack. When the news cycle inevitably moves on to the next Trump blunder, Iran will continue to stew over the needless humiliation delivered upon it this week, along with the spineless acquiescence of the global order in the trashing of its own laws and norms.
With the brittle fabric of international law exposed as an untrustworthy defence, we should not be surprised if Iran chases a nuclear program, even if doing so throws the security balance in the Middle East into jeopardy and makes the whole world a more dangerous place to live.
If only we had some kind of binding nuclear deal with Iran…