Iran’s military response Tuesday to last week’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike seemed calculated toward winning (to the extent a long-distrusted regime can) the battle for international sentiment. In striking two Iraqi airbases housing U.S. troops after leaving the Pentagon several days to prepare — and possibly calibrating the missile attacks to avoid casualties — Tehran can argue that it met the definition of a proportional response.
“So far, so good,” President Donald Trump tweeted regarding initial damage assessments. So far — the phrase must be emphasized and applies as of this editorial’s publication Tuesday evening in the U.S. — the conflict between the two countries remains mitigable.
Nonetheless, the global blowback from the original airstrike ordered by Trump has been compounding.
On Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer adhere to the strict limits on uranium enrichment that the nation had agreed to as part of a multilateral pact signed in 2015. That deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — wasn’t perfect. No agreement that had to be hammered out between the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union and, of course, Iran, was ever going to be ideal. But it did put a lid on any proliferation ambitions that the theocracy might have had for at least for 15 years.
“This is Iran’s version of the U.S.’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” Mark Bell, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer. Bell, a proliferation expert, added: “Iran is signaling to the United States that it has a number of cards it can play in response to the killing of Soleimani, and it’s not surprising in response that Iran is starting to play those cards. And one obvious area in which it can start to take actions that are not in the United States’ interest is with respect to its nuclear program.”
So now instead of 15 years, in just five Iran will be less constrained after it announced that it would no longer recognize limits on how many centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium. Although it has said it will still allow access to U.N. nuclear inspectors, it will be difficult, if not diplomatically impossible, to revive the JCPOA.
Not that Europe isn’t trying. Key leaders called for calm and emphasized the “urgent need for de-escalation” on both sides. But the Trump administration is putting its allies in a bind as they try to salvage the pact. And it made things worse by not consulting them before the strike on Soleimani — a mistake it repeated regionally as well by reportedly not alerting Saudi Arabia.
Alliances are strained throughout the region, especially in Iraq, where the Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. On Monday it initially appeared that the administration would comply, only to call a draft letter on the matter a “mistake,” amplifying the foreign policy fiasco that began with the 2003 invasion. The Pentagon also had to reverse Trump’s disgraceful threats that the U.S. would illegally target Iranian cultural sites. Once again, Trump’s Twitter diplomacy alienated U.S. allies and emboldened adversaries.
One of the potential winners is ISIS, as the U.S.-led global coalition against the terrorist movement pauses its efforts. Another appears to be hard-liners in Iran who were very recently on the defensive as protesters took to the streets against the nation’s feckless government. Now those demonstrations have been replaced by massive rallies in support of Soleimani, who is now seen as a martyr by millions of Iranians and even Iraqis with close ties to their neighboring nation, which also has a Shiite majority. Similarly, the government of Iraq — an ostensible ally — has been humiliated by Trump’s threatened economic moves against that country that would make Iranian sanctions “look somewhat tame.”
There’s nothing tame, nor temperate, about any of Trump’s tactics, which seem separate from even a semblance of a strategy. Wiser voices among allies, Congress and citizens need to be amplified in order to heed the wise call for de-escalation.