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It’s all up to Trump now

Iran’s attacks on US bases in Iraq could be the end — or the beginning of something far worse. Which road we go down is almost entirely up to the president.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) participates in a military graduation ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, on October 30, 2019.
Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Iran’s Tuesday night missile attacks on multiple US military targets in Iraq are the country’s first tangible retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, a key Iranian military leader. A White House source told Vox there were no American casualties, but it is still possible Iraqis may have been killed in the strike.

The big question now — the really scary question — is how President Donald Trump will respond.

The Iranians have sent clear signals, both through the missile strikes and through semi-official and official channels, that this is their big response. If Trump chooses a relatively limited and restrained form of retaliation, or even a nonmilitary response like just sending out a tweet declaring victory, it’s possible that Iran won’t escalate things any further.

This crisis set off by Soleimani’s killing would then turn out to be a short-lived military skirmish rather than a full-scale war. Indeed, Trump’s first tweet after the attacks suggests this is the route he’s going down:

But this is not necessarily the last word (after all, he said he plans to make a statement Wednesday morning). If Trump changes his mind and goes in the other direction — ordering some kind of aggressive retaliation like airstrikes on targets inside Iranian territory, for example — the Islamic Republic will likely feel a need to respond yet again. Fox News’s Sean Hannity, one of the media personalities the US president watches religiously, is calling for attacks on Iran’s oil and nuclear facilities.

If that happens, we could very well be on the road to a much bigger war — the kind of war that, if it comes to it, could dwarf even the Iraq War in scope and horror. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has vowed to respond to another strike by the US with an attack on the American homeland.

Congress has largely abandoned its oversight role when it comes to war and peace. That means that, in the American political system as it actually operates, one person gets the final say on this. Currently, that person is Donald Trump. Whether this crisis escalates depends a great deal on his deeply questionable judgment.

Why almost everything hangs on America’s — that is, Trump’s — response now

It’s possible this isn’t the end of the Iranian military response. However, strong signals from Tehran sent out Tuesday night through various channels are all framed as contingent on another American response. If you attack us again, we’ll hit you again — but not otherwise.

This suggests the Iranians don’t want a wider war. That makes sense: It’s not in their interest to fight a major war against a vastly superior military power like the United States.

But it’s not in American interests to fight that war, either. As my colleague Alex Ward explains, a US-Iran war would be incredibly ugly and bloody. Iran’s capabilities to fight back, both in the region and via terrorist attacks around the world, far outstrip Iraq’s in 2003. An untold number of soldiers and civilians would die for very little strategic gain.

The hope is that Trump recognizes this: that his oft-stated desire to avoid US involvement in Middle East wars kicks in, and he backs down from the brink in the same way that he pulled away from the threats to attack North Korea in 2017 (and Iran in June). Maybe just send out some tweets declaring his policy a success, and call it a day.

His first tweet certainly indicates this could be the outcome. But it’s not necessarily what this mercurial president will settle on.

Trump sitting in the Oval Office.
President Trump speaks to reporters during a meeting with the prime minister of Greece in the Oval Office on January 7, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The administration’s thinking behind the hit on Soleimani was, as far as we can tell, that hitting Iran hard would deter the country from further attacks on American interests — “deterrence by escalation,” essentially.

Yet Tuesday night, Iran openly struck directly at American bases for the first time in recent memory (typically, it has proxy forces conduct such risky operations to add a layer of plausible deniability). According to the administration’s stated logic and that of its validators on Capitol Hill and in the media, this could require yet another, bigger US response.

This would likely have the opposite of the intended effect — pushing Iran to retaliate, thus locking the two countries in a cycle of escalation that could make a full-scale war that nobody wants a reality.

And more fundamentally, Trump is an erratic and impulsive man. He’s demonstrated little capability to think strategically about conflict, going with whatever seems persuasive in the moment rather than some kind of well-thought-out strategy. The strike on Soleimani was something he decided on personally, an extreme policy option the Pentagon was reportedly fairly confident he wouldn’t take.

So we’re at a fork in the road between deescalation and a wider war. All the strategic logic in the world suggests the smart move would be to travel down the first path. But the White House’s unpredictable occupant is at the wheel, and there is no real way to predict which direction he’ll go. The first signs are encouraging — but we’re not out of the woods yet.