The consequences of the strike are unpredictable, but there is no denying the risk that the United States will be pulled more deeply into the Middle East and its conflicts. Having made clear that he wants to pull the nation out of those conflicts, and having said as recently as Tuesday that he wanted peace with Iran, Mr. Trump has committed an act of escalation and now is deploying more than 4,000 additional troops to Kuwait as a hedge against Iranian counterstrikes.
It’s certainly possible that the killing will have the effect of deterring further Iranian attacks on Americans, such as the rocket strike that killed a U.S. contractor at an Iraqi base last week, or the assault by Iranian-backed militias on the embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday. The loss of Soleimani might disorient and demoralize the militia forces he steered. The Trump administration is clearly hoping Tehran will absorb the blow and retreat, which is why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept talking Friday about “de-escalation.”
But Iran might choose to strike back, if not immediately then in coming days and weeks. Targets within Iranian reach include U.S. embassies and citizens across the Middle East; shipping in the Persian Gulf; Saudi oil fields; and Israeli cities, against which Soleimani aimed thousands of missiles. Have Mr. Trump and his aides thought through the possible Iranian responses and fully prepared for them? Does the administration have a clear goal? While Mr. Trump was still tweeting about negotiation, some of his aides appeared bent on regime change in Tehran.
In the short term, at least, the killing of Soleimani along with a senior Iraqi militia commander has probably made both those goals more difficult to reach. The 62-year-old general was not only the architect of Iran’s aggressions across the Middle East but also a hero to many Iranians, who may now rally around him and the regime. In Iraq, where Soleimani had been under pressure from anti-Iran demonstrations, political leaders may turn on the United States; a parliamentary vote to expel U.S. troops would be a major Iranian victory.
When Mr. Trump took office, Iran’s nuclear program was quiescent and its threats to U.S. interests manageable. He pulled the United States out of the treaty that had limited Iran’s nuclear activity, and he ratcheted up sanctions against the regime. He took sides in a regional battle between an intolerant Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia and an intolerant Shiite regime in Iran. Now, even as short- and long-term threats from Russia, China and North Korea require urgent attention, the United States finds itself in an ever tenser confrontation with Iran. Mr. Trump has yet to offer any explanation of why this is in America’s strategic interest.