Amid chants of “Death to America” in Iran’s parliament on Sunday, the chamber’s speaker, Ali Larijani, directed yet another dire warning to the U.S. “You ought to know,” he said, “that this deed will bring painful consequences.”
With all the sound and fury emanating from officials in the U.S. and the Middle East following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani on Friday, it wasn’t immediately obvious which developments really mattered and which just represented leaders jockeying for advantage by bragging about their willingness to commit acts of violence. But while we’ve yet to see what form Iran’s inevitable retaliation may take, the consequences of President Trump’s decision are already apparent. From the gobsmacking confusion over the status of U.S. troops in Iraq to reports of discrimination against Iranian-Americans at the border, the following repercussions are well underway.
The situation for U.S. troops on the ground looks dangerously incoherent
Soon after the attack, Iraq declared that U.S. troops must leave the country; over the weekend, caretaker Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi demanded, and got, a vote from the Iraqi parliament ordering U.S. forces out. But Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers, whose constituents have borne the brunt of attacks by the militias Soleimani supported, skipped the vote — another indication of how divided Iraq is. Trump-administration officials at first seemed to respond with bravado, suggesting that nothing was final or would necessarily change. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed criticism from Mahdi, calling him the “resigned prime minister,” which is, to say the least, an unusual way to talk about someone who controls the status and support for thousands of U.S. service members.
Then things got weird. Late on Monday, a letter from the U.S. commander in Iraq purporting to notify Baghdad of U.S. intent to withdraw troops from Iraq surfaced online and was acknowledged as authentic, spurring confusion and uncertainty. Then, when asked about it, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the memo was inaccurate and he and his staff were “trying to figure out” what was going on — not usually how the Pentagon’s leader responds to news of troop movements. Within an hour of Esper’s comment, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was telling a new story: “Letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released … poorly worded, implies withdrawal, that is not what’s happening.”
So are U.S. troops in Iraq staying, going, or being redeployed to less conspicuous locations? Your guess is as good as mine — but, worryingly, Iranian military intelligence likely has better information than we do.
Iran is playing the long game
Despite some dire predictions, we didn’t see U.S. embassies overrun or the Eastern Seaboard shut down by Iranian cyberattacks over the weekend. Tehran’s messaging has been strong but so far not as extreme as many have feared. Iranian officials and their allies vowed to take revenge, but said civilians would not be targeted. “The response for sure will be military and against military sites,” Hossein Dehghan, the main military adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told CNN. He added, “The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted” — a comment that can be read in a number of ways.
Likewise, the Iranians announced that they are suspending their participation in the 2015 nuclear deal that had shut down their weapons program, but they left open the possibility of returning to it at some point. Tehran has yet to make clear whether that means expelling international inspectors and closing down sensors that let the outside world have a better sense of whether it is dashing for a bomb.
Some commentators have used these developments to argue that Trump’s strategy “worked” and that Iran may be deterred. But remember that it took Austria-Hungary a month to open what became the First World War after its crown prince was assassinated in 1914. It’s not time to celebrate yet, by any means.
The Trump administration’s decision-making process is just as bad as you feared
The rubble had barely stopped smoldering before anonymous administration sources were running to tell reporters how Trump made the call to target Soleimani. It seems the president got a Pentagon briefing in Mar-a-Lago and picked out assassinating the Iranian general from a list of options on a Power Point slide to the shock and dismay of the officials in charge. (We should note here that it’s bureaucratic custom to write options memos à la “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — one too hot, one too cold, and the middle one, by default, just right. Nice going, guys.)
Publicly, administration officials have given inconsistent answers on the nature of the alleged threat that compelled the Trump administration to strike now without notifying Congress or our allies, including those who have troops on the ground with us in Iraq. But, on background, officials told New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi that the sourcing was “razor thin” and contained no conclusive evidence of an imminent attack.
Republicans won’t do anything to rein Trump in
Exactly one Republican has criticized President Trump in the days following the strike: Senator Rand Paul. “You could say that Soleimani was plotting to attack the U.S. It may well be true,” Paul told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on Friday. “But with his death, do you think it’s more or less likely that Iran and their militias and their proxies will attack the U.S.? I would argue that it’s much more likely.”
Of course, Paul has been a regular critic of the presidential use of force without congressional authorization. But what are the chances that any significant number of Republicans will vote with Democrats in favor of Senator Tim Kaine’s war-powers resolution to “force a debate and vote in Congress to prevent further escalation of hostilities with Iran”? As underscored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest jab at Democrats, basically zero.
Finding and fighting actual terrorists just got harder
Soleimani’s killing makes it harder for the U.S. to maintain operations against remnants of ISIS around the Iraq-Syria border. A stable Iraqi government was key both to limiting Iran’s regional influence and to preventing a resurgence of ISIS, but these developments have only made a weak government weaker. Both Tehran and Washington will be telling Baghdad it must choose. And Tehran is much closer.
In addition to regional threats, Iran has a history of sponsoring terror attacks in our hemisphere. Analysts are thus watching anxiously for signs that Iran or its proxies might seek revenge here — and there are concerns that the Trump administration might use those fears as an excuse to violate the civil liberties of Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry. Over the weekend, more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were detained for hours at Washington State’s border with Canada and asked questions about their family history and politics. Most were released, but some were denied entry to the U.S. Masih Fouladi, an executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, suggested these detentions may have been illegal. They also take up time and generate data that may distract Customs and Border Protection offers from the business of catching drug dealers, human traffickers, and other criminals at our borders.
So, as is often the case, the threat we face isn’t just foreign retaliation. As we await Iran’s response, the Trump administration is still disregarding diplomatic norms, lawmakers are granting the executive branch absolute power, and we’re responding to terror threats with fearmongering and discrimination against our fellow Americans. In the long run, these moves may wind up hurting the U.S. more than whatever Tehran has in store.