The Islamic Republic of Restraint

Don’t buy the hype 1.0: Look, the administration, Fox News, and a Twitter army of Trumpsters are about to unleash a wave of propaganda. The president was right to assassinate Soleimani all along, they’ll say. The Iranian missiles fired on Tuesday night missed all American targets – perhaps on purpose – resulting in zero U.S. military casualties. Trump must’ve known the Iranians would flinch, we’ll be told. His hard line, his provocative escalation, was all part of a grand strategy – the master dealmaker strikes again!

That’s all balderdash! Remember: according to the most loyal Trumpeteers, every time the president’s rash actions don’t result in nuclear Armageddon he’s clearly a "stable genius” (his words). Now, that’s a pretty low bar, folks. We should expect better. Seems to me that Trump’s foreign policy is more aptly characterized, as William Hartung – of the Center for International Policy – coined it, the "P.T. Barnum strategy:" more show than substance. It goes both ways, of course, what with Iran potentially "retaliating" against the US for their own domestic consumption, whilst carefully avoiding American casualties.

The main problem with the Trump-as-genius argument is that, at best, he’s left in place an unacceptable status quo. Tensions remain unnecessarily high between the US and Iran – mainly due to Trump’s original sin: pulling out of the multinational nuclear deal that even American intelligence agencies assessed that Iran had adhered to. In fact, the execution of Soleimani may have only made matters worse. The administration lied about the Iranian general’s mission that day in Baghdad; he was actually likely there for secret talks to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia. Talk about a counterproductive killing. War could still break out at any moment. Both sides have mobilized and repositioned troops. Heck, a brigade of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division is already on its way to the region. The two inessential adversaries remain on hair-trigger alert.

Now, at worst, Trump has only weakened the US position in the area. After all, right on the heels of the Soleimani assassination, Iraqi’s Parliament and Prime Minister officially called for the withdrawal of all US troops from the very country upon which Iran and America have been waging war of late. Naturally, in a fun twist on the widespread global understanding of national sovereignty, Defense Secretary (Incorporated) Mark Esper has emphatically declared that US troops "are not leaving Iraq." International law, international shmaw – we’re America, and Trump is president.

Finally, lost in the sure-to-come "Trump was right" talking points will be a few other inconvenient facts:

  1. The president provided zero evidence to the public that Soleimani himself posed an imminent threat to US forces. We’re just supposed to trust the government? Really? After the mountain of lies fed to the people reference the 2003 Iraq invasion, CIA torture program, and Afghanistan (as shown in the oh-so-quickly forgotten Afghan Papers)? Count me out! What’s more, after a closed session congressional briefing on Wednesday, even some Republicans complained that they were given "no specific information" on any "specific" alleged "attack." Now that’s fishy.
  2. Furthermore, the very legality of the strikes – and targeted assassinations in general – under domestic and/or international law was highly dubious.
  3. The constitutionality of the killing was also questionable. Yes, the president possesses Article II commander-in-chief powers, however, those ought to be used sparingly and only as a last resort. By design, the Founders placed the preponderance of martial decision-making in the hands of Congress. Trump isn’t alone here, as one executive after another has gradually stripped war-making authority from an all-too-willing, and complacent, legislative branch. What was particularly dangerous in this case, however, is that President Trump unilaterally committed an egregious, risky escalation – an act of war – that set all the pieces in motion for a potential regional conflagration, essentially leaving Congress and the People to pick up the pieces. He presented America with a perilous fait accompli.

So let’s not fall for the administration talking points or its loyal social media trolls’ undoubtedly absurd musings. The Soleimani operation was far from prudent and hardly a slam dunk. Don’t take my word for it: Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee told CNN Wednesday that the "way the whole thing went down" was "un-American and unacceptable." I couldn’t agree more; we can do better!

Don’t buy the hype 2.0, either: No matter what the US Government has long claimed, Iran is not the world’s most dangerous state; nor is it really the globe’s greatest "state-sponsor of terrorism" – whatever the "T-word" even means anymore. Nor, contra the Mikes (Pompeo and Pence) – who seem genuinely intent on pursuing policies designed to sow the de rigueur chaos to bring forth their own insane hopes for the Rapture – would regime change in Iran accomplish much of anything or serve US or regional interests. These mad eschatological millenarians are deeply mistaken in their belief that Iran represents something uniquely evil in this world. They should take a hard look at their own diplomatic Facebook friends for exhibit A: Saudi Arabia.

In reality, from this historian’s "hatch," it is demonstrable that time and again, since at least 1979, it was Iran – not the US – which showed greater restraint and helped avoid war. Consider just a few examples. After the CIA and MI6 overthrew a democratically elected Iranian prime minister in 1953 and installed the vicious dictatorial shah – whose security forces killed thousands – it took 25 years for the Islamic Revolution to kick off. When that rebellion overthrew the U.S.-armed and -backed shah, how did the young revolutionaries respond? Well, famously they snatched and long held 52 American embassy personnel hostage. Sure, this was an unacceptable violation of diplomatic sovereignty, but, as compared to the deaths of thousands of Iranian innocents, it was a relatively muted response. No hostages were killed, and, though it took far too long, all were eventually released.

Then, in 1980, when Iraq invaded and threatened to destroy Iran, the US openly backed Saddam Hussein’s aggressive regime. The US provided key intelligence in the form of satellite photos to the Iraqi Army, and granted Baghdad over $1 billion in economic aid. In all, after eight years of existential war, perhaps 500,000 Iranians died. To this flagrant US provocation, Iran did retaliate substantially: in 1983, the Iranian-backed Amal militia killed 241 US Marines in Beirut (where they shouldn’t have been in the first place), throughout the 1980s Hezbollah took several American journalists and Intel officials hostage in Lebanon, and its Saudi offshoot (allegedly) killed 19 US Airmen in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. None of this is defensible; still, comparable scale remains relevant. Iran never directly attacked United States military personnel or the American homeland, even though Washington had clearly enabled the devastation of the Persian nation.

Then, when after a US ship struck an underwater mine (no fatalities resulted) the American Navy – in Operation Praying Mantis – overtly sank the majority of the Iranian Navy in a one-sided sea battle. Then, during the same undeclared Persian Gulf maritime conflict, a US naval vessel even shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. The commander, Captain Rogers, claimed his crew mistook the jet for an Iranian fighter, but even so the plane was fully in Iranian airspace.

Then, Vice President George H.W. Bush even refused to apologize for the shoot-down. He callously announced “I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are. … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” Oh, and as for Captain Rogers – he was awarded the Legion of Merit. For all these immense, and deadly, provocations, Iran didn’t responded in any measurable way. So it was, in Tuesday night’s case of deja vu, that Tehran again showed remarkable restraint by appearing to retaliate without harming the hair on a single American’s head.

None of this is to say that Mr. Trump, if he shows relative restraint – and it appears he plans to, for now – doesn’t deserve some credit. He’s done it before. Months ago, after Iran shot down an unmanned American drone, Trump apparently shocked his own aides and backed away from military strikes. Whatever shred remains of the optimist inside of me likes to believe that – for all his PT Barnum posturing and absurd risky behavior – The Donald, unlike the John Boltons’ of the world, doesn’t actually want an outright war with Iran.

Still, overall, it must be Tehran that earns the gold star for restraint in this – and many past – instances. I mean, come on, an American drone blew away one of their national heroes, perhaps the third most powerful man in their sovereign government. The move was tantamount to war by any and all reasonable definitions. And how did they respond? With a sham, maybe symbolic, American-casualty-free missile strike. Now that’s self control.

All of which raises a profound opportunity for President Trump. Iran’s leadership has shown, once again, and quite profoundly, that they’ll eschew open war with the US and may even be open to détente, for reentry into the global community from which they’ve long been excluded (by America, it must be said). Trump, it seems, in spite of his bluster, fumbling, mad carelessness, and escalation, could still salvage a new "deal" with the Islamic Republic.

No doubt, mainstream liberals will hammer this author for even suggesting that all could work out in Trump’s favor – but it could! So, if our dear leader seizes this opening to pivot to diplomacy, to some degree of relational normalization, he’d come slightly closer to earning his self-styled sobriquet of "stable genius." And, for my sins, I might even crack open The Art of the Deal

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen