The Trump administration has maintained from the start that it ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in order to forestall an imminent threat to American lives.
It’s pretty clear this is not true, that the administration instead simply made a calculated decision to escalate American pushback on Iran as part of a larger series of back-and-forth actions that began with the US pullout from the Iran nuclear deal.
And though the deception involved has been fairly widely reported in the press, it hasn’t played a leading role in describing the cycle of tensions. That’s a mistake. By killing a foreign country’s key leader, the US put itself in the position of facing retaliation, as Iran did with rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq earlier this week. Those attacks, thankfully, didn’t kill any Americans. The Trump administration, thankfully, agreed not to retaliate further, for now.
But it’s clear that members of the Trump administration are not in complete agreement on Iran policy with some influential conservatives who have long pushed for a regime change in Tehran. For an administration that appears to want a war with Iran but lacks the public backing — or for a faction that wants a war but lacks the full support of the president — this is one good way to make the dream happen: provoke Iranian responses that, in turn, provoke new American responses.
A way to halt that cycle of escalation is to insist that people who want to take provocative steps give accurate information about what they are doing.
The imminent threat line looks very suspicious
There’s substantial evidence to doubt the administration’s imminent threat message.
For example, the Pentagon’s original press release about the Soleimani operation didn’t mention it, and the immediate US reaction was to order all American civilians out of Iraq for fear of retaliation — clearly, nobody was made safer in a direct, immediate sense.
Those actions are consistent with a scenario in which Soleimani was a dangerous person in general, and the decision to take him out was made by policymakers seeking long-term benefits at the short-term cost of elevated risk to American lives. That’s fine as far as it goes; sometimes in life you need short-term pain for long-term gain. But when someone asks you to suffer short-term pain, you normally ask them to explain what kind of gain they’re promising so you can consider whether it’s a fair deal.
The administration, instead, said it was heading off imminent attacks even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded that he couldn’t say where or when these attacks were supposed to happen.
Pompeo insists the ideas that Soleimani presented an "imminent" threat but the administration doesn't know when or where he planned to strike are "completely consistent thoughts." pic.twitter.com/7LDFR7zcVU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 10, 2020
Similarly, senators briefed on the intelligence simply said there was no evidence presented of an imminent threat.
REPORTER: Why are you saying that Soleimani presented an imminent threat against embassies here but not to senators during this week's briefing?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 10, 2020
POMPEO: We did.
REPORTER: So senators are lying?
POMPEO: I won't talk about the details. pic.twitter.com/91NoZLoJ1G
Then on Friday, John Hudson, Missy Ryan, and Josh Dawsey reported for the Washington Post that on the same day as the successful strike on Soleimani, there was a second, failed anti-Iranian operation. That operation, which the administration neglected to tell us about, targeted Abdul Reza Shahlai, described in the Post as “a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen.”
This is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the Soleimani strike was about disrupting an imminent threat as opposed to a broader shift in policy. That the administration kept this quiet, even as it went on a multi-day victory tour about killing Soleimani, is further confirmation that it is not leveling with us about its actions.
And that’s unacceptable.
Lying the country into war is really bad
Trump is notorious for lying about all kinds of things. And the national security sector, accustomed as it is to dealing in classified matters and state secrets, seems in some ways to be instinctively unbothered by deception. But in reality, this kind of lying is especially dangerous.
The public is highly motivated to protect American lives, as are members of Congress who are responsive to the public. They would be willing to go further in terms of killing foreigners to actually defend Americans in a specific way than they would to, say, advance Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions with regard to Iran. And if Iran responds to American acts with new rounds of aggression that kill more Americans, the public is likely to support further escalation against Iran, and who knows where that will end.
This dynamic is already clearly in place in the larger question of the Iran nuclear deal, the specific elements of which Trump keeps lying about. Iran’s aggressive behavior against the US is clearly linked to Trump’s decision to abrogate the deal. Trump keeps saying he did so because Iran was cheating, which, if it were true, would be a good reason to abrogate the deal. But it wasn’t true.
Now, though, US-Iran relations have deteriorated to a point where Iran is refusing to abide by the limits in the agreement. If you lack the original context that the US pulled out of the deal despite Iranian compliance, Iran’s actions could be seen as justifying new anti-Iran moves from the US.
By the same token, killing Iranian officials could be a highly effective way of provoking Iranian retaliations that inflame American opinion and drive support for aggressive acts that the public wouldn’t otherwise get behind. The way to break the cycle is to demand that the American government give a clear, convincing, and honest account of what it is doing and why — and to stop treating its refusal to do so as a secondary plot, when in fact it’s at the heart of the story.