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The many reasons a conflict with Iran could spin out of control

The Trump administration is dealing with its first full-on foreign policy crisis — one that is mostly of the president’s own making.

Iranian people carrying the coffin of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani
Iranian people carrying the coffin of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani during a funeral procession in Tehran on Monday.
Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

This is how you bumble into a war.

U.S. administrations for years have weighed the pros and cons of going after Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military official killed by a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on Friday. Suleimani, the architect of efforts to build Iran’s regional influence, had plenty of blood on his hands, including that of American troops in Iraq. 

But until Friday, American officials had always concluded that despite the trouble he caused, his death would cause even more trouble

Foreign policy experts frequently warn in theory about how rivals can misread each other, and how that can lead to an escalation of conflict, resulting in a war no one wants. President Trump’s order to assassinate Suleimani provides a clear, practical illustration in how that could happen. The Trump administration is dealing with its first full-on foreign policy crisis. Not surprisingly, it’s one that is mostly of the president’s own making.

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While Iran and the United States still can avoid a large-scale conflict, more people will die as a result of this attack. Some of them may be U.S. allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia or Europe. But Americans will die, too. They may be military or diplomatic personnel; they may be innocent civilians. They might be in the Middle East, Europe, the United States – almost anywhere. 

Iran has to respond, both for reasons of prestige and retribution. As many have pointed out, assassinating Suleimani was akin to Iran killing the head of U.S. Central Command, at least one of the intelligence agencies, and/or the vice president – perhaps all rolled into one. Even if Suleimani’s use of Iranian forces and proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have been disastrously counter-productive for his country, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman argues, the Iranian leadership clearly doesn’t see it that way. It will act accordingly. 

More moderate officials such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who already have lost authority for negotiating a nuclear agreement that Trump trashed, have no option but to go along. 

The dangers in assassinating Suleimani are twofold, and interconnected. First, it was disproportionate, precisely the kind of response Trump claims to have eschewed by calling off airstrikes on Iran last summer after it shot down an American drone. An Iranian-allied militia killed an American contractor in Iraq; Trump responded with airstrikes on the militia. Iran’s backers attacked the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad (without actually getting into the Embassy or harming any U.S. personnel). Trump ordered an attack on Iran’s second-most important official. While the U.S. claims it acted to avert imminent attacks that Suleimani was planning, it has yet to produce evidence. Maybe there is evidence – but “imminent” is an elastic concept, particularly for someone who never cared much about telling the truth, anyway. 

The second problem is that this kind of action makes it unclear to Iran what, exactly, the United States will do. Trump loves ambiguity as a pressure tactic. But governments usually strive to be very clear where their red lines are, and with good reason. Even if they don’t say exactly how they will respond to provocation, they try to leave little doubt that they will respond. They know that one of the quickest ways to a foreign policy crisis is through faulty assumptions about how an adversary will react.

While Trump has been consistent about pressuring Iran, he also wants to reduce the U.S. role in the Middle East, says he doesn’t want war and would be willing to hold high-level meetings with the Iranians. He has reduced the U.S. role in Syria, providing Iran with a golden opportunity. Even if he continues to squeeze Iran’s economy, he is easily distracted and has given Iran the impression he can be pushed around in the Middle East. Suleimani wanted to see just how far. That, too, turned out to be a miscalculation.

The Trump administration is predicting that Iran’s response will be limited. But a small-scale Iranian response would come across as timid. Threat and counter-threat built through the weekend. Trump said the United States had a list of more than 50 targets it would hit inside the country if Iran hit back hard. That would be another magnitude of escalation. Does Iran believe him this time? Does it care? Or would American airstrikes rally a divided and dispirited country? How do impeachment and a U.S. election campaign play into it?

Iran says it will no longer be bound by terms of the nuclear agreement, which it largely had adhered to even after Trump pulled out. Iraq’s parliament has voted to expel U.S. forces from the country. The list of potential targets for Iran and its allies is nearly endless. It can take its time. U.S. forces are spread across the region and oil shipments in the Gulf are vulnerable. Iran has ample proxies able to launch attacks that Tehran could cheer while claiming deniability. 

Maybe there are enough cool heads left on both sides to keep things from spinning totally out of control. But there are many ways this could get much, much worse.