US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian general on Thursday, and in his characteristic style, he made sure the world knew who was responsible.
As reports filtered out from Iraq that Qassem Soleimani had been killed in a US airstrike, some administration officials quietly acknowledged US involvement. Then, a tweet from the president: an image of the American flag, absent any commentary. And finally, a statement from the US Defense Department: Trump ordered a strike on Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds force, to prevent attacks on US personnel.
Trump’s decision to kill a man regarded as the second most powerful person in Iran was hailed by his allies as one of his boldest strokes in foreign policy and lambasted by his critics as likely his most reckless.
The US president defended the move Friday morning in a series of tweets saying Soleimani was planning to attack Americans:
"General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number.... of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself. While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!"
That the attack came two days into Trump’s re-election year, and while he faces an impeachment trial in the Senate, raised immediate suspicion among his opponents that his decision was politically motivated. And the repercussions, extending to the possibility of war, are unknown.
As a private citizen in 2011, Trump publicly accused president Barack Obama of planning war against Iran in order to secure his re-election because “he’s weak and he’s ineffective.”
But as president, Trump has shown – first by his withdrawal of US forces from Syria in September and now with the strike on Soleimani – that he will act in what he believes are the best interests of the country even in the face of potential consequences he and his advisers can in no way confidently predict.
Bracing for retaliation
In Syria, there was little planning for the aftermath. The White House was braced for potential Iranian retaliation within US borders, two officials said. One said that the government was on heightened alert, but the details of the administration’s preparations weren’t immediately clear.
Oil prices spiked more than four percent in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Preceding the strike, Trump’s government fell into silence. A Washington businessman who had scheduled dinner with a White House aide staying at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, said the meal was suddenly cancelled and Trump aides went dark.
Immediately after Soleimani’s death, calls to press officers at the State Department went straight to voicemail. Later, one State Department official questioned whether the White House had thought through the next steps in its escalating confrontation of the Islamic Republic.
Political reaction fell along familiar party lines – buoyant praise from many Republican lawmakers and a string of Democratic statements that criticised Soleimani, blamed for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen during the Iraq war, before questioning the wisdom of Trump’s move.
‘Dancing in the street’
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted out a video that he said showed Iraqis “dancing in the street” over Soleimani’s death. A spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, Kayleigh McEnany, said on Fox News that the killing was the “greatest foreign policy accomplishment, I would say of the decade, if not our lifetime” and sent “the unmistakable message that if you mess with Americans, you will pay a price as a terrorist.”
Democrats, though, warned of unpredictable consequences and said Trump should have informed Congress of such a provocative move.
“Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner to challenge Trump’s re-election, said in a statement.
Demanding a briefing
“This action was taken without the consultation of the Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region.”
The next move is likely the Iranian government’s to make. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed that “severe retaliation” awaits Soleimani’s killers, according to a statement broadcast on state media.
And the country’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the attack “an extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation” on Twitter and said the US will bear “responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
The state-run Tasnim news agency said three days of mourning had been declared by the government.
“The US will need to be ready,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs under President George W. Bush.
by Alex Wayne, Bloomberg