Both in private and in public, Donald Trump and his national security team have sought to portray the decision to kill Iran’s most prominent military leader as little more than a defensive strike — a drone attack on a commander plotting yet more aggression against US interests in the region.
“Qassem Soleimani was getting around,” said one US official with access to American intelligence on the late Quds Force commander. “He was planning attacks that could kill hundreds of Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and across the region.”
Taken at face value, such justification would imply that there has been no fundamental shift in the US president’s approach to Tehran, that a military attack on one of the most dangerous military tacticians in the Middle East was little more than part of a gradual dialling up of pressure that started the day Mr Trump took office.
In broadcast interviews throughout the day, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state who has become Mr Trump’s closest foreign policy adviser, repeatedly portrayed the attack as a show of strength — arguing that “doing nothing in this region shows weakness” — rather than a strategic change.
Even the president himself seemed to imply that a drone strike was simply a negotiating tool, writing on Twitter: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” Later, Mr Trump said: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
But Democrats and experts in the region say such justifications are, at best, naive. To critics, the attack was a major escalation, one that previous administrations had avoided because of Soleimani’s central place in the Iranian leadership. Indeed, Mr Trump himself twice held off on retaliatory attacks against Iran in recent months out of similar fears of turning US-Iranian tensions into a shooting war.
Now, however, the attack on Soleimani turns the US-Iranian rivalry in the region from a series of proxy wars to a direct confrontation that could easily escalate into an all-out war, critics argue.
Democrats have insisted that without an accompanying shift in policy — and a military plan accompanied by diplomatic, economic and intelligence tools all aimed at a strategic goal — the attack puts both Washington and Tehran on a war footing without a sense of what the endgame should look like.
Ben Rhodes, a top national security adviser to former president Barack Obama, said while the previous administration’s nuclear pact with Iran was unloved by many both in Washington and Jerusalem, it satisfied a strategic goal: to roll back Iran’s nuclear programme and avert war.
“Trump’s decision to pull out [of the nuclear pact] has led to Iran resuming its nuclear programme and started this dangerous cycle of escalation that we are still on,” Mr Rhodes said.
Current US officials bristle at such criticisms, saying that Mr Trump has long spelt out his endgame — escalating pressure on Tehran, through economic sanctions and military pressure, until the Iranian government gives in and agrees a more comprehensive deal than Mr Obama sought.
The current White House believes any such deal should both curtail Iran’s nuclear programme and curb its role as a regional sponsor of violent proxies, a network of mostly Shia militias from Afghanistan to Lebanon that was Soleimani’s greatest contribution to Iranian regional policy. The Obama-era deal did nothing to stem Soleimani’s ambitions in that area.
“Those who claim there is no strategy are wilfully ignoring a consistent three-year approach to countering Iranian aggression, warning the regime and warning its foreign proxies,” a senior Trump administration official told the Financial Times.
But even as Trump officials argue that killing Soleimani was part of an existing strategy rather than a wholesale change that marks a march to war, they were also hurriedly planning for such a contingency.
One US official said the administration was “hardening” its military positions and troop numbers across the region, particularly with respect to countries with significant Shia populations. The White House was also making plans to send as many as 3,500 troops to the US Central Command area of responsibility.
Mike Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, said Mr Trump may have once been at pains to take action to deter Iran without passing a threshold that would trigger all-out war.
But now, Mr Singh said it was doubtful Iran, which he said he will want to retaliate without provoking a devastating US response, could find a way back to talks without ramping up its nuclear programme — undermining the White House’s ultimate goal.
“If Iran’s strategy was that Trump couldn’t stomach a crisis then this event demonstrates that he won’t be so easily deterred or cowed by Iranian escalation,” Mr Singh said. “My concern is that Iran will find a route back to the negotiating table via nuclear escalation. They won’t want to come back to the table without leverage and they may want to provoke a greater crisis so they have something to trade with the United States.”
For the time being, Tehran has shown no interest in anything but retaliation. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council characterised the assassination of Soleimani as “the biggest strategic blunder in the west Asia region”.