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Trump and Iran step back from the brink — for now

Los Angeles Times • Jan 10, 2020 at 8:00 AM

President Donald Trump sought to assure the world late Tuesday that Iran's flurry of rocket attacks on two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces were of no significant consequence. "All is well!" he tweeted, adding that damage assessments were underway. "So far, so good!" He followed that up with a more somber televised address Wednesday morning, noting that the Iranian government "appears to be standing down" and that the U.S. intends to impose more economic sanctions — apparently signaling an end to offensive military action.

The nation can only hope this will be the end of it, although it's hard to imagine that will be the case, especially if Iran continues down the path toward developing nuclear capacity. But for the moment, it seems, Trump and the Iranian government have drawn mutually satisfactory levels of blood, displayed to their people that they will not stand for the aggression of the other, and halted the escalation of hostilities into all-out war. Good, although defense analysts warn cyber attacks are likely, as well as actions by militias in Iraq sympathetic to Iran but beyond its direct control.

This episode should make the nation very nervous. Yes, the U.S. has a right to defend itself against attack, but it also must temper its responses with a mature and sober view of the ramifications. The president has displayed neither, reflexively choosing the assassination of a member of a sovereign government (who was a violent and destabilizing influence in the Mideast) over less risky options, and then crowing about it.

How did we get here? It's been a long path, rooted in U.S involvement in the 1953 CIA-aided coup of Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, which elevated the shah to power and set the stage for the 1979 Islamic revolution that has framed U.S.-Iran relations ever since.

The latest round of tensions began with Trump's May 2018 withdrawal from the Obama administration-brokered Iran nuclear deal and reinstatement of economic sanctions. Relations deteriorated quickly, with the U.S. sending additional military forces to the Gulf in anticipation of Iranian actions as Iran or its proxies began harassing ships in the busy Strait of Hormuz. On Dec. 27, the Iraq-based pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah (the Hezbollah Brigades) militia attacked an Iraqi military base housing U.S. troops, killing interpreter Nawres Waleed Hamid, a private contractor and naturalized U.S. citizen who was buried near Sacramento on Tuesday. Over the next week, the U.S. attacked five Kataib Hezbollah sites in Iraq and Syria, killing more than two dozen people; militia sympathizers stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; and Trump — to the surprise of top advisers — opted for the riskiest option they presented to him and ordered that Qassem Suleimani be assassinated as the Iranian general departed the Baghdad airport

This is how wars start, with aggressive steps, bad responses, and escalating rhetoric of grievances that boxes in political leaders who have dangerous armories at their disposal. So it is good that both governments seem to have let a line stop their toes, at least for now. But we also must recognize that the president's personal volatility led directly to the killing of Suleimani, who, as a top Iranian military figure, has been involved in a wide range of plots and attacks that have killed hundreds of people, including U.S. service members. Suleimani's exit from the Mideast chessboard, although welcome, will not likely have a significant effect on limiting Iran's support for militia and terror groups aligned with its interests.

So why did Trump order the attack, which also killed Abu Mahdi Muhandis, an Iraqi who led a coalition of Shiite militias friendly to Iran, and whose death may echo more in Iraq than Suleimani's? As Trump told reporters Tuesday, it was to stop planned attacks on U.S. interests (again, with no specifics offered) but also as an act of revenge. "It was retaliation," Trump said. "He killed an American. ... You look over his past — he's been called a monster. And he was a monster. And he's no longer a monster. He's dead. And that's a good thing for a lot of countries."

Is it? Is it a good thing for international stability for the president of the United States to order the killing of a high-ranking member of a sovereign government against which it is not at war, even if the figure was a malevolent actor? No, it's not. This episode, even if it passes with no further attacks, has shown the world that our president not only is erratic, impulsive and immature, but also dangerous — a loose cannon in a world of cannons.

(c)2020 Los Angeles Times

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