Checkers and Chess
It’s early Friday morning, 3 January 2020. Should I write about an event that is so extraordinary, so significant, and so complex, and break the usual Sunday schedule by publishing early, or should I simply forget about it? I cannot ignore the fact that President Donald J Trump has ordered the targeting of Iranian General Solemeini. The fact that this effort was successful is secondary. More importantly, who gains?
Solemeini was a bad guy. I get it. He was smart, charismatic, powerful, experienced, focussed, and successful. He built Iranian special forces capabilities. He built numerous proxy movements. He was likely to become the next Iranian President. He was a combination of Chief of Defence Staff, Head of Intelligence Services, and right-hand friend of the Ayatollah.
The US has had numerous opportunities to target Solemeini in the past and decided to not do it. Israel as well. The determining question, I suspect, was always, ‘Is Solemeini more dangerous alive or as martyr?’ The answer was always that his death at the hands of the West would have greater consequence than if he lived.
Solemeini has been behind the killing and wounding of hundreds of American military and civilians. True. The Iranian government has been struggling under the pressure of US sanctions. True. Internally, anti-government movements have formed, have grown, and are threatening the stability of the Iranian government. True. The US seeks regime change in Iran. True.
So, why target Solemeini? It makes no sense. The internal threat to the Iranian government will now evaporate as the people coalesce against the US action. Nothing else could have strengthened Iran like this. So, why target Solemeini?
It is confirmed that Trump ordered the attack. Legally, he can only do that if there is a clear and present danger to American interests, troops, or citizens. Otherwise, he would need congressional approval. The effort to explain the clear and present danger has already begun. Pompeo, Sen Graham, and Esper have already spoken. Others will follow. They say that Solemeini was planning attacks against Americans in Iraq. Of course he was. He’s been doing that for years. Spin. Damage control. No effort at truth.
What does the US gain by targeting Solemeini? Certainly not Iranian regime change. Certainly not an end to the Iranian military threat to American forces and interests. Retaliation for recent attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad? Maybe. An end to Russia-China-Iran joint military exercises? I doubt it.
Given their indifferent statements or refusal to comment, I don’t think that Trump consulted the Europeans. Clearly, he did not consult Israel. Did he consult the Saudi’s? I don’t know. Did he speak with Putin?
Nobody in their right mind could possibly have suggested to Trump that targeting Solemeini was a good idea. Someone really smart might have done so if the gains were worth it. Who gains? The Iranian leadership and the President of Russia.
Maybe it isn’t obvious. Russia-China-Iran undertook four days of joint exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean beginning last Friday 27 December. The Iranian and Chinese Presidents have described how much safer the world will be as a result of this cooperation. Russia wins this one. Russia also benefits from the US targeting Solemeini. Putin has plausible deniability, but he could have whispered in Donald’s ear.
Will Iran respond to the US action? Of course they will – but probably not immediately.
I predict that there will be a calm before the storm, that Iran will mourn, that Iran will measure world opinion before acting, that they will use proxies, and that they will execute with precision. I predict that the attack will be carried out on American soil – probably in North America. I predict that it will take one of three major forms: assassination, public bombing, or as a cyber attack against public utilities or military systems. And, I predict, that the Iranian government will deny responsibility – as will the Russians who will make it all possible.
Trump is playing checkers while Putin is playing chess.