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Donald Trump took the biggest risk of his presidency by killing a top Iranian general, and for the moment the bet is paying off. The question now is: for how long?
A retaliatory Iranian missile attack on two U.S. bases in Iraq early Wednesday caused no casualties, allowing the president an opportunity to stand down from what looked like an escalation toward war.
“We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” Trump said in televised remarks to the nation Wednesday. “We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.”
The Jan. 2 strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani was a dramatic show of strength that, at least for now, reset the power dynamic between the U.S. and Iran and, back home, energized many of the president’s supporters. Trump appears to believe Iran will now think twice about provoking the U.S. and the two nations could even begin to forge a new understanding to reshape fraught Middle East politics.
But it’s not at all clear that Iran is done with its reprisals.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter that his government’s “final answer” to the Soleimani “assassination will be to kick all U.S. forces out of the region.”
Late Wednesday in Baghdad, two rockets struck the Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy is located. There were no casualties, according to a statement from Iraqi security forces.
Iran’s relatively timid initial retaliation for the U.S. strike on Qassem Soleimani reinforced arguments by Trump and his allies that his unconventional approach to foreign policy can pay commensurate dividends.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said. He concluded his remarks by inviting Iran to seek “harmony with the nations of the world,” promising: “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
It appears unlikely the Islamic Republic or European nations that signed the 2015 nuclear accord Trump scrapped are more eager to negotiate a new deal today. Iran, instead, has said it will no longer observe the 2015 agreement’s limits on its uranium enrichment, potentially moving the country closer to a nuclear weapon than before Soleimani was killed.
Iran’s leaders have bided their time before and are practiced at an asymmetric foreign policy that relies on proxy forces to badger the U.S., making further escalation a distinct possibility. That risk may increase if the investigation into the overnight crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet leaving Tehran creates new political headaches for Iran’s leaders.
Trump’s meteoric political rise was fueled in part by his stated opposition to the costs of the nation’s Middle East wars and his promises to withdraw from the region. He has instead overseen a buildup of U.S. forces in response to increasing Iranian belligerence following his abandonment of the nuclear accord.
After the Soleimani strike, social media networks were flooded with users expressing concern about the outbreak of war. A survey by Reuters and Ipsos found that a majority of Americans – 53 percent – disapproved of Trump’s handling of Iran following the strike, an increase of 9 percentage points from December.
The crisis seemed to shake even some of the president’s most ardent supporters. Allies including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, urged the president to avoid war with Iran.
The de-escalation may therefore help Trump politically. And it provided the president a tidy foreign policy victory, even if temporary, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to debate his impeachment and removal from office over his efforts to force Ukraine to investigate political rivals.
Still, the substantial risk for the White House is that Iran yet exacts a price in blood for Soleimani’s killing or that it resumes its once aggressive efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Either outcome would render Wednesday’s events a Pyrrhic victory.
Trump’s Red Lines
Trump opened his remarks to the nation with the flat declaration that as long as he is president, “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” That is an unmistakable red line he’ll be under great pressure to enforce.
He also made clear that the U.S. would respond forcefully to the killing of any American at the hands of Iran. With tens of thousands of soldiers deployed in a region where Iran supports a broad array of terrorist organizations and militias, the possibility of a sudden escalation remains significant.
Those declarations came despite Trump knowing full well the risk of red lines. He made his name in politics in part by lambasting President Barack Obama for not following through on a threat to punish Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons in his country’s civil war.
The crisis also appears to have scrambled the fragile relationship between the U.S. and the government in Iraq. The country’s parliament quickly voted for the withdrawal of foreign forces following the Soleimani strike. Trump said Tuesday the U.S. military would remain, threatening sanctions if Iraq’s government forced it to leave.
But those are problems for tomorrow. On Wednesday, Trump appeared to have managed to appease both the pacifist and more hawkish wings of his party. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who had called the Iranian missile attack “an act of war,” said the president’s remarks were “measured and firm.”
“What President Trump is seeking from Iran is to end 40 years of tyranny, to stop them from being a state sponsor of terrorism and to abandon their nuclear weapons program once and for all,” Graham said. He called Trump’s strategy a “Maximum Pressure campaign” combined with “a credible military component.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joshua Gallu
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