How Trump Falsely Escalated the Prospects for War with Iran
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
On December 27, 31 Katyusha rockets were fired at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, wounding several Iraqi troops and killing a single US civilian contractor who was working to “train Iraqi security forces.” (Note: The death of a civilian contractor is not uncommon. As of June 26, 2011, 257 American contractors had been killed in Iraq. Typically, contractor deaths outnumber the deaths of foreign soldiers.)
Although the attack targeted an Iraqi government base, and the death of the civilian contractor was apparently inadvertent, the Pentagon responded disproportionately by launching a series of devastating “retaliatory” strikes against five sites belonging to the Iranian-backed Kataeb Hezbollah Brigades. Three sites in Western Iraq and two sites inside Syria were obliterated by US airstrikes that killed at least 25 Hezbollah members.
The US acted despite pleas from Iraqi government officials to call off the attacks.
Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the US retaliatory strikes, calling the actions a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a “dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region.”
These attacks brought crowds of protestors to the gates of the US embassy—a 104-acre site in Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone.” The demonstrators breached the perimeter security and began breaking windows, destroying security cameras, and setting offices afire before US troops forced them back by firing rounds of tear gas.
The US media uniformly described the protestors as “Iranian-backed militias” but videos appear to show crowds of civilians engaging in the demonstrations—part of a series of public protests that have been roiling the capital for months. Since October, more than 450 people have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded in “apparently leaderless” mass protests by civilians chaffing under Iraq’s poverty, unemployment, electricity cut-offs, unsanitary water supplies, lack of democracy, sectarian politics, and rampant corruption.
In November, these widespread protests forced Adel Abdul-Mahdi to announce he would resign as Prime Minister.
The Manipulation of Iran’s Role
The Trump administration misrepresented the attacks on the US Embassy as being the sole result of Iranian agitation and used this false claim as a pretext to threaten Iran. In fact, Iran has played a role in suppressing anti-government protests in Iraq. According to Dr Lina Khatib, Iran has been “supporting the security forces. And their loyalist militias in Iraq have infiltrated protests to try and crack down on them and force the demonstrators to go home . . . . It is not in Iran’s interests for the protests to succeed, because it sees them as a threat to its own influence in Iraq.”
Even the New York Times admited that the assault on the US Embassy was not simply the work of “Iranian-backed militias” but also involved many sectors of Iraq’s population, including members of the US-backed Iraqi government. To wit:
Despite a 16-year American effort to establish a government friendlier to Western interests, at a cost of more than $1 trillion and 5,000 American lives, Iraq’s leaders lined up in opposition to the American airstrikes and its security forces allowed the militias to reach the American diplomatic compound. Some people wearing the uniforms of the Iraqi security forces were even seen attacking the compound themselves.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration continued to blame Iran for guiding the demonstrations and used this as its excuse for launching a drone strike that targeted Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani as he was leaving Baghdad’s national airport in a convoy of vehicles with other officials.
Soleimani was killed when a missile launched by a 36-foot-long MQ-9 Reaper drone turned his vehicle into a twisted tangle of flaming metal.
The US media reported that Soleimani “died” in the attack. This minimizes the gravity of the situation. Soleimani did not simply “die”—he was brutally assassinated at the direct order of US president Donald J. Trump.
Trump has properly been labeled a “lawbreaker” for unilaterally abandoning the multi-party Iranian Nuclear Deal. Now, Mr. Trump—who has been publicly celebrating the death of Soleimani—has earned the title of “murderer.” Where other presidents (including George W. Bush and Barack Obama) covertly ordered the deaths of scores of foreign targets, Trump becomes the first US leader to openly boast of his responsibility for assassinating a foreign political leader.
Soleimani’s body was torn to pieces. He could only be identified because of a ring on one of his charred fingers. The brutality of the US attack almost makes Saudi Arabia’s public beheadings look like mercy killings by comparison.
“Self-defense” Cannot Be Proactive
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Soleimani was killed “in response to imminent threats to American lives.” Trump called the assassination a “defensive action” designed to “protect US personnel.” Trump claimed Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” So it wasn’t a “defensive action” as much as a “preventative action.”
It’s always a difficult proposition when any person—or state—asserts the right to take lethal action in “self-defense” on the basis of a suspected threat. Paranoia does not justify over-reaction.
The problem with first-strike “preventative actions” is that they address probabilities as realities. In this light, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could have been called a “defensive action,” since the US had been massing military forces in the Pacific and subjecting Japan to a range of punishing sanctions intended to push the empire toward war.
On January 3, Trump issued a statement that “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.” The details of the alleged threat have not yet been shared with Congress or the American people. And, if there were grounds for such concerns, what is the best response—to prepare to defend against a potential threat or to become an aggressor who commits the first act of violence?
George W. Bush staged a deadly attack, invasion, and occupation of Iraq based on completely bogus claims of a non-existent threat. Operation Iraqi Freedom was not an act of self-defense.
You Don’t Stop Wars by Employing Aggression
Now Trump has stated: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” But Trump offered no evidence that Soleimani or Iran had any plots to launch a war against the US.
Plotting attacks on US troops and military contractors who are installed in a foreign country that increasingly resents US presence is an act of resistance. It does not rise to the level of declaring war on the “US Homeland.”
Many political leaders in the US and around the world are deeply fearful that Trump’s posture of self-righteous vengeance has not just given Iran a pretext to attack Western targets but practically requires that Tehran respond in some dramatic manner.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressed this concern when she observed: “[W]e cannot put the lives of American servicemembers, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions.”
Trump declared: “I have deep respect for the Iranian people . . . . We do not seek regime change.” Perhaps, Trump is unaware of the fact that it was the US that toppled the government of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The CIA stirred public discontent and organized massive public protests to destabilized the country as a prelude to overthrowing the government and installing a brutal, US-friendly regime headed by the Shah of Iran.
In a stunningly disingenuous public statement issued on January 3, Trump blithely lied that “America will always pursue the interests of good people, great people, great souls, while seeking peace, harmony, and friendship with all of the nations of the world.” Trump followed that historically flawed claim with the discordant boast: “God bless our great military.”
“An Act of War”
Trump continues to escalate tensions through threats and disproportionate military responses. So how can he not expect Iran to respond to these threats and military attacks?
Iran’s UN Ambassador has called Soleimani’s murder an “act of war” and pointed out that the US has been strangling the Iranian economy with a series of punishing sanctions since May 2018—a process he likened to an “economic war.”
In response to Soleimani’s murder, Iranian state television halted all scheduled programming and began broadcasting the Islamic prayer for the dead. During a presentation on Soleimani’s assassination, military spokesman Ramezan Sharif broke down in tears on live television.
New York University professor Arang Keshavarzian, explained why Soleimani was so revered: “He has remained above factional conflicts in Iran and is respected by a variety of segments of the Iranian elite, and he enjoys popularity in Iran as a nationalist symbol who helped repel the Iraqi invasion in the 1980s and stand up to US aggression since then.”
Catalina Gómez Ángel, a journalist based in Iran, has written: “At the end of this Friday’s prayer in Tehran. I don’t remember hearing the cry of ‘Death to America’ with such passion in many years. This time it was something that felt like truth. Qasem Suleimani was more than a general for these people.”
Meanwhile, during a New Year’s party at this Mar-a-Lago retreat, when reporters asked Mr. Trump whether he feared a war with Iran might break out, the Commander-in-Chief responded: “I want to have peace. I like peace. I don’t see that happening.”
Someone who murders foreign leaders and doesn’t see that such acts can lead to war is too inept and dangerous to be entrusted with the powers of the presidency.
One odd thing about this whole frightening scenario is that, while the White House has put the country on the path to war because of the inadvertent death of a single civilian contractor, we have not learned the name of the contractor—nor do we know the name of the corporation that was receiving the taxpayer dollars that embedded this military contractor in a foreign country more than 6,000 miles from US shores.