Appearances matter, but they are not everything. With the Iraqi Parliament’s vote on Sunday demanding the departure of the American troops, Donald Trump seems to have played a very bad hand. Far from leading to a weakening of Iran, the assassination of General Soleimani, an essential figure of the Islamic Republic, seems to flood the United States with opprobrium throughout the Middle East and make them lose Iraq to the advantage of the mullahs.
America is the murderer; Iran, the victim of state terrorism. While in Tehran, pragmatists and conservatives are closing ranks against Washington, the American press is overflowing with questions about the strategy in which Donald Trump might have planned this drone strike. The least that can be said is that we don’t see this strategy and if it were a game, all the goals would be scored by the Iranian regime.
Those are the facts. They are hardly discussed, but nothing forbids another reading of this crisis, as Donald Trump has been able to place the Iranian leaders before an impossible alternative, since it is now as risky for them to avenge the death of Qassem Soleimani as it is for them to refuse to take part in the spiral of these events.
Let us consider the first hypothesis, the one in which they are indeed avenging the assassination of a man who was the architect of the Iranian expansion throughout the Middle East, whose death was celebrated in the last quadrant of the Syrian opposition in Idleb because he was the one who had allowed Bashar al-Assad to crush his people and who embodied, above all, the Guardians of the Revolution, that army of the regime which had suppressed bloodily the Iranian demonstrations of November. The Islamic Republic announced this revenge. It has promised it, but whether it does so directly or through its Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni or Iraqi protégés, the American response to this Iranian response will be immediate and heavy.
From the close circle of Donald Trump, Senator Graham has been warning Iranian leaders since Friday that their oil fields would be bombed if they attacked the interests of the United States or their citizens. Donald Trump drove home the point by mentioning the “52 targets” that he could order to be hit.
The message from the White House is clear: “If you move, you will pay the price. There is little reason to doubt this threat, which the United States has every means to carry out, but, conversely, what if the Iranian leadership were wise enough to take these warnings seriously, swallow this pill and do nothing?
They would avoid serious destruction to their civil and military infrastructure. That is no small thing. It is a lot, even, but then Iran’s allies in the Middle East would justifiably conclude that they can no longer rely on their Iranian sponsor alone. The whole regional situation would be changed, and not to Tehran’s advantage. Many Iranians, for their part, would say that their regime is no longer immortal. The whole Iranian situation would be so profoundly transformed that social protest could be revived, and it would not be possible forever to fire again at the protests of misery. While conservatives and pragmatists would then tear each other apart in Tehran, Bashar al-Assad would have to seek new support while, already much weakened by the demonstrations in Beirut and Baghdad, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian militias and parties of Iraq would have to deal with new national and regional chessboards.
In either hypothesis, the Iranian leaders can only be further weakened by the actions they will or will not take following this assassination and it must therefore be noted that, consciously or not, Donald Trump did not choose a wrong moment. A rising star in the Middle East since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States allowed it to gain a foothold in Iraq, the Islamic Republic is now facing social discontent caused by the American economic blockade and a rejection of the protectorate it has imposed on the Iraqis and the Lebanese. This regime is no longer ascending but descending, and even as its coffers are emptying, it has to plug more and more gaps and now admit that it is powerless against the United States or give them a challenge from which it would emerge pushed to its knees.
Even if Iraq managed to expel the American troops, it is not at all proven that Iran is still powerful enough to take control of such a vast and fragmented country. No, Donald Trump did not necessarily play a bad game, but the whole problem is that the mullahs’ regime, with its back to the wall, can make the stakes soar and that its possible retreat would not launch an era of peace in the Middle East. The relative vacuum it would leave would only pave the way for a renewed regional chaos in which Turks, Kurds and Saudis would seek to consolidate their positions, while Russia would find itself very lonely in a complicated East where it would find it difficult to know who to support and why.