By the end of his address to the American people and the world yesterday, Donald Trump had said little to indicate that the dangerous escalation of tension between his country and Iran will soon come to an end. Instead, further retaliation on the part of Iran and all-out war remain distinct possibilities.
In a speech that was a mixture of bluster, muddled policy, and partisanship, Trump said as long as he remains US president Iran will never have nuclear weapons. He accused that country of “destructive and destabilising behaviour”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is such behaviour he stands accused of because of his unilateral strike on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Soleimani, Trump said, was “a ruthless terrorist”. But according to a poll conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, by October 2019 Soleimani was viewed favorably by 82 per cent of Iranians. He undoubtedly had a checkered past, killing hundreds of Americans during the Iraqi War.
However, he also played a role in the elimination of ISIS. His extrajudicial killing has proven hard to justify, bearing all the hallmarks of a needless provocation, the result of which was the strike by Iran on US facilities in Iraq on Tuesday. Consistent with a position of strength, Trump announced the doubling down of punishing economic sanctions on Iran.
Yet, in a moment of partisan politics he repeated misrepresentations relating to the unfreezing of Iranian funds under the Obama administration. Instead of acknowledging the need for unity on this matter, he has sent a signal, as he did with Ukraine, that foreign policy positions will be inflected by his own campaign for re-election.
In his one olive branch, Trump called on Iran to work with the US to keep ISIS at bay. “We should work together on this and other shared priorities,” he said, though Soleimani was said to have played a role in containing that insurgency.
In the end, the speech gave little away in terms of an overall strategy, clarified nothing in relation to the legality of the Soleimani issue, and failed to settle the fate of more than 5,000 US personnel – including persons of Trinidad heritage – in Iraq, as well as thousands more who are left vulnerable due to Iran’s apparent wish to retaliate at the US and its allies.
Canada, Germany, Croatia, and Slovakia have temporarily withdrawn troops from the region. Many will be relieved Trump stopped short of declaring war, perhaps mindful of the view of the Pentagon that such a war would be tough given Iran’s landmass, disbursed weaponry, and air defences.
He noted there were no US deaths in yesterday’s strike by Iran due to systems, with reports of additional warning from Iraq. But having opened Pandora’s Box, Trump now risks thousands of lives with little sign of a plan to close it back.