January 8, 2020

The President will have to decide how to respond to the latest escalation in tensions between the US and Iran. It’s anyone’s guess where he’ll land.

Donald Trump’s options for responding to Iran’s attack on US troops in Iraq


Even before Iran launched dozens of missiles on Iraqi bases housing US troops, US President Donald Trump promised that America would strike back.

In a dozen tweets and press appearances since Qassem Soleimani was killed on Friday, the President has taunted and poked the Iranians.

Not only did he label the highly revered military general “a monster”, but he spoke about him as if he was the head of a militant regime, not the country’s second in command.

But despite all of the keyboard bluster, he addressed news of the attack on what’s being described as the pulse of American operations in Iraq, with relative silence.

It took him several hours to take to his favourite communication platform, Twitter, where he declared “All is well,” again taunting Iran that America has the “most powerful” and “well-equipped military” anywhere in the world.

Judging by the decision-making that provoked Iran in the first place, it’s anyone’s guess where he’ll land.

His options boil down to a handful of possibilities:

1. Do nothing

This would fly in the face of what Mr Trump has repeatedly said he’d do as tensions between the two countries have continued to escalate.

Last week the President tweeted: “Should Iran strike any US person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back, and perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”

Just hours before the recent attacks, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that the US would respond with force if necessary and put the responsibility for de-escalation squarely on Iran.

However, Iran has offered Trump an enticing opportunity to stop the march to war by saying they’re through with their attacks for now. They would not escalate the situation unless the US responded.

If Mr Trump chose to take them up on that offer — if he walked away with nothing besides Soleimani’s death — you could expect him to still tout it as a victory on the campaign trail.

2. Pull troops out of the region

There was a split moment where this looked like a possibility thanks to an unsigned letter that surfaced in the media but has since been labelled a mistake.

Part of the reason the letter caught hold is that Mr Trump has made a campaign promise out of “ending endless wars”, and he’s recently reiterated his desire for American troops to completely pull out. But he’s also said now is not the right time.

It would threaten Iraq’s stability further and allow Iran to further spread its tentacles throughout the region.

3. Issue economic sanctions

America has already imposed a severe arms ban and an almost total economic embargo on Iran, which includes sanctions on companies doing business with the country.

There’s also a ban on Iranian-origin imports, sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and an almost total ban on selling aircraft to the country’s aviation industry.

Has any of that stopped Iran from striking bases housing American troops? No.

So what would further sanctions do? Perhaps little.

4. Strike another government official

If the reaction to Soleimani’s death has made anything clear, it’s that this would be a bit of a disproportionate response to any move that didn’t result in a staggering number of US fatalities.

Past US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama decided killing Major-General Soleimani was never worth the risk, and Mr Trump’s counter-decision was seen as a shock by everyone from world leaders to his own military advisers.

But the US certainly has the intel and firepower to assassinate any number of Iranian leaders if that’s what Mr Trump ordered.

5. Damage a military base or state infrastructure

An attack of this nature could range in severity, but would likely be considered the most proportionate to Iran’s actions today.

The US might consider attacking more militant bases in Iraq or Syria, which it considers to be proxies for the Iranian Government.

This was what led the US to strike several bases of Kataib Hezbollah late last year, killing 25 militia members.

It’s unlikely America would target infrastructure like oil facilities. That would send up global oil prices, which Mr Trump does not want. It could also upset other global powers who rely on Iranian oil.

The US could also launch a cyber attack on key infrastructure and suppliers. An attack of this nature can be specifically targeted, which is the route the US took in June in retaliation for attacks on US oil tankers.

But a broader attack could leave swaths of the country without electricity or functioning computers.

6. Attack a cultural site or civilians

Last week, Mr Trump said he had 52 Iranian sites — “some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture” — in mind for where he’d strike should Iran retaliate.

Several Iranian officials and US pundits pointed out that this would be a war crime, per the 1954 Hague Convention. The US has always been a proponent of saving cultural sites during war.

Mr Trump’s staff tried to walk back the claim, saying that the US would “behave lawfully” and “follow the laws of armed conflict” but the President at first doubled down, telling reporters “it doesn’t work that way”.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people,” he said.

“They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites?”

The President appeared to change his stance at a press conference today.

“If that’s what the law is … I like to obey the law,” Mr Trump said.

Most of the world would consider this an extremely disproportionate response. If it went forward, one could expect the escalation to reach the point of no return.

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, donald-trump, world-politics, iraq, iran-islamic-republic-of, united-states

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