(Bloomberg Opinion) – For 40 years, American presidents have been dealing with a fundamental question about Iran, best summed up by Henry Kissinger: is it a country or a thing? On Thursday evening, Donald Trump replied: Iran is one thing, a terrorist thing and is treated as such.
This could be the lasting consequence of the drone attack that Trump ordered, which killed the indispensable Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Since Jimmy Carter, the US presidents have sanctioned Iran and its leaders for sponsoring terrorist groups responsible for chaos and murder worldwide. Until Thursday, however, these leaders were spared the cruel fate of Osama bin Laden or Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Nation-states are generally expected to cooperate against terrorists, but under the leadership of Soleimani, Iran has been an important mediator of terror. From 2003, he built up a network of representatives across the Middle East that influenced the balance of power in favor of Iran. Under his command, Shiite militias in Iraq injured or killed thousands of US troops with powerful street bombs. He orchestrated the arming and training of the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. He planned the intervention in Syria that saved Bashar al Assad's brutal war machine. He helped plan the Iraqi government’s response to anti-Iranian demonstrators.
And yet Soleimani considered himself untouchable. He didn't take the precautions of a marked man, camouflaged his movements, and hid his location. In fact, he often posted selfies from various fronts in the regional war in Iran and ridiculed his opponents.
In some ways, this drone attack is surprising. In June, Trump canceled a last-minute attack on Iranian positions after shooting an unmanned US drone over the Persian Gulf. During the summer and into the fall, Trump escalated sanctions against the Iranian regime, but also tried to resume negotiations with his political leaders. He has been beating the "endless wars" of his predecessors and trying to pull US forces out of Syria.
Iran has responded to this economic pressure with military escalations. In September, the US accused Iran of striking a large Saudi oil processing plant. A series of Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf followed. Shiite militias supported by Iranians began filling US positions in Iraq in October. These attacks have been bolder in recent months and culminated in an attack in Kirkuk last week that killed an American contractor and wounded several American soldiers.
That crossed a red line for Trump. He has warned the Iranian regime since last spring that the US will respond in kind to any attack that kills a US citizen. The United States responded this week by bombing Kataib Hezbollah bases in western Iraq and Syria.
Then Iranian-led militias stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, setting fire to it and holding diplomats hostage for 24 hours before retiring. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned of the siege. "If we learn of attacks," he said, "we will also take preventive measures to protect the American armed forces and life."
As a result, the man who staged the terror on Iran’s behalf had the same fate as the terrorists he oversaw. This is considered a significant escalation. Iran's top leader has already vowed revenge. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has urged Iraqi Shiite militias not to waste Soleimani's death.
And Iran has many options for retaliation. Your militias have enough rockets to wreck the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. His deputies are capable of kidnapping, suicide bombing and other riots against softer American targets in Europe. Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political party founded by Iran in the 1980s, controls some networks in the United States.
That doesn't mean the US attack was unjustified. Soleimani "actively developed plans to attack American diplomats and members of Iraq and the entire region," the Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday. "This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian plans to attack."
It is therefore misleading to say that the assassination of Soleimani is the start of a new US war against Iran. More specifically, it opens a new chapter in an ongoing war. Up to this week, this war has been waged through economic sanctions against the Iranian regime and precision strikes against its deputies. Trump has now lifted the distinction between Iran and its representatives.
This is a blow not only to the Iranian network of militias and terrorists. It is also a blow to the regime's campaign to make the world treat it like a normal country. Iran is a country ruled by terrorists, and Trump rightly treats it as such.
To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and their owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist dealing with national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and worked for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI in the area of national security and intelligence.
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