For 40 years American presidents have pondered a fundamental question about Iran, best summed up by Henry Kissinger: Is it a country or a cause? On Thursday evening, Donald Trump gave his answer: Iran is a terrorist cause, and it will be treated as such.
That could be the implication of the drone strike Trump ordered that killed Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. Since Jimmy Carter, U.S. presidents have sanctioned Iran and its leaders for sponsoring terrorist groups responsible for mayhem and murder worldwide. Until Thursday, those leaders have been spared the grisly fate of Osama bin Laden or Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Nation-states are generally expected to cooperate against terrorists, but with Soleimani’s leadership, Iran has been a major facilitator of terror. Starting in 2003, he built up a network of proxies throughout the Middle East. Under his command, Shiite militias in Iraq injured or killed thousands of U.S. troops with powerful roadside bombs. He orchestrated the arming and training of Yemen’s Houthi rebellion. He planned the intervention in Syria that saved Bashar al Assad’s brutal war machine. He helped plan Iraq’s crackdown against anti-Iranian protesters.
And yet Soleimani saw himself as untouchable. He did not take the precautions of a marked man, cloaking his movements and hiding his location. In fact, he would often post selfies from various fronts in Iran’s regional war.
In some ways, this drone strike is surprising. In June, Trump called off at the last minute a strike on Iranian positions after it shot down a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf. Over the summer and into the fall, Trump escalated sanctions against Iran’s regime, but also tried to restart negotiations. He has railed against the “endless wars” waged by his predecessors and sought to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
Iran has responded to this economic pressure with military escalations. In September, the U.S. accused Iran of striking a major Saudi oil facility. This followed a series of Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. In October, Iranian-backed Shiite militias began hitting U.S. positions in Iraq. Those attacks have become bolder, culminating in an attack that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded several U.S. servicemen.
That crossed a red line for Trump. He has warned the Iranian regime since last spring that the U.S. would respond in kind to any attack that killed a U.S. citizen. The U.S. responded this week by bombing Kataib Hezbollah bases in western Iraq and Syria.
Then Iranian-led militias stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, essentially holding diplomats hostage for 24 hours . Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a prescient warning after the siege. “If we get word of attacks,” he said, “we will take preemptive action … to protect American lives.”
The consequence is that the man who orchestrated terror on behalf of Iran has met the same fate as the terrorists he oversaw. This counts as a significant escalation.
And Iran has many options for retaliation. Its militias have enough rockets to turn the U.S. embassy in Baghdad into rubble. Its proxies are capable of kidnappings and suicide bombs against softer American targets in Europe. Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia and political party created by Iran in the 1980s, controls some networks inside the U.S.
So it’s misleading to say that the killing of Soleimani is the opening of a new U.S. war against Iran. It’s more accurate to say that it opens a new chapter in an ongoing war.
That’s a blow not just to Iran’s network of militias and terrorists. It’s also a blow to the regime’s campaign to bully the world into treating it like a normal country. Iran is a country run by terrorists, and Trump is right to treat them as such.