Brett Bruen (@BrettBruen) was director of global engagement in the Obama White House and was a U.S. diplomat for 12 years. He now runs a crisis communications agency and teaches on the topic at Georgetown University.
President Trump did not only kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He also killed a core principle that had long protected our people. For the last several decades, the United States agreed it would not assassinate foreign government officials. That rule is now dead, and, with its demise, the president has handed a powerful precedent to Iran and other adversaries.
Moreover, the danger we face did not die with Soleimani. While Tehran may have temporarily pulled its punches, we should all be very worried about the new risks we will confront in a world where senior government officials are considered fair game.
The American president essentially has said he can take out anyone, anywhere, for any reason. This will alter our adversaries’ actions dramatically. For a country like Iran, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Tehran can now attempt to justify a future assassination of one of our officials on the basis that they represented an “imminent threat” to Iran. In fact, we may see this justification repeated by other governments for quite questionable purposes.
Russia has regularly reached across borders in recent years to exact deadly revenge against dissidents and defectors. Not even Moscow, though, was bold enough to take out other nations’ officials. That may now change.
Iran’s missiles fired at bases in Iraq last Wednesday did not strike any Americans. But even if Iranian leaders were demonstrating strategic restraint, it should not be mistaken for standing down. Iran has restarted its nuclear program and still has U.S. personnel squarely in its sights.
Iran was never going to mount a full-frontal assault in retaliation for the killing of one of its top commanders. That is just not how Tehran fights, especially against a superpower like the United States. Instead, it has spent years building a specialization in asymmetric attacks, often through its wide network of proxies across the planet. Masking those operations provides the Iranian government with the ability to claim it wasn’t responsible for the actions of its affiliated groups.
Trump struck down one of Iran’s leaders so brazenly, so boastfully, and he didn’t even bother to build a cogent case for why it had to happen. There is a long history of Iranian leaders pointing to America’s past performance and positions to justify taking aggressive action. Last week, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations parroted the administration’s line about Tehran during an interview with NPR when he said that the United States should “join the international community and act like a normal country in respecting international agreements.”
Perhaps the White House approach is best described as “bully them until they break.” Based on my diplomatic experience, such strong-arm strategies don’t work. They end up actually producing a lot of unintended consequences as the targeted country looks for unconventional ways to push back. In this case, Iran has already demonstrated its readiness to retaliate against oil fields, tankers and military bases.
What is it exactly that Trump expects Iran to do? The president said over the weekend he “couldn’t care less if they negotiate.” Even when Iran showed relative restraint in response to Soleimani’s killing, the administration continued to escalate the sanctions and strong words.
Lost to many in the frenzy of the past week is the fact that Tehran proclaimed to be completely unbound by the terms of the Iran deal. Signed by Iran, the U.S., European nations, Russia and China, the deal was meant to offer Iran economic relief in exchange for curbing its nuclear program. But President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. Now, beyond bellicose bluster, there appears to be no notion within the Trump administration for how it gets Iran to change course. Were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, as with North Korea, America’s options would be severely limited, while Iran’s options would multiply.
Without a clear roadmap for how to move forward, there is a high probability we will find ourselves back on the cliffs overlooking a crisis in the coming months.
How can we avoid things getting out of hand and Iran developing nuclear weapons? First, forget about presidential summits, which haven’t worked with North Korea. Instead, the administration should use the model of ministerial meetings that helped lead to progress on the trade war with China. It should make some clear, concrete demands for Iran to end support to proxies and protection of Iranians’ fundamental rights. Then get China, Russia and our European allies to apply pressure on Tehran.
How can we avoid the Soleimani strike boomeranging back against Americans serving abroad? The nonbinding war powers resolution passed by the House of Representatives last week and the Senate bill to prevent war with Iran are sorely insufficient. Congress needs to do more than set stricter conditions for war. It ought to demand detailed answers for how we avoid it. There should be a review of when and with what justification presidents can order a senior foreign official killed. New rules need to be written. We have to set and stick to a very high bar for such action.
The national security principles and practices the president disavows are vital for keeping American officials safe. Trump ostensibly took out Soleimani to protect our people serving in the Middle East. He ended up putting them and many others in much greater danger. Protecting them requires quickly laying out a roadmap for resolving the crisis with Iran, along with writing up and respecting a rigid rulebook for any future targeting of foreign officials.