A critical and dangerous anniversary is fast approaching, and President Donald Trump is doing little to ease the tensions that could cause chaos between the United States and Iran at a very bad time.
On Jan. 2, Trump ordered the assassination by drone of one of Iran's most revered military figures, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani, a close confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wept over his grave, was a high-profile commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard and was revered by a large swath of the Iranian people. Fortunately for U.S. forces, Iran's retaliation was thin: a missile attack on two U.S.-staffed military facilities in Iraq with enough warning to get troops out of harm's way.
A critical and dangerous anniversary is fast approaching, and President Donald Trump is doing little to ease tensions.
The first anniversary of Trump's strike, which the White House proudly publicized during the presidential campaign, will fall a few weeks before Inauguration Day. Trump hasn't conceded, but it seems clear that he will be leaving office, albeit without much grace. But before he does, it seems possible that he will attempt a dramatic military move that could leave a real mess for his successor — which may well be the point.
According to The New York Times, it took the combined persuasive powers of Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to talk Trump out of the idea of bombing Iran's leading nuclear facility at Natanz last week.
Less noticed was another meeting a day earlier, also reported by The Times, when a smaller group of national security aides met to discuss Iran and especially its actions in neighboring Iraq.
This is a critical issue. Depleting troop levels In Iraq could leave the remaining forces more vulnerable. Even the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — among the largest U.S. diplomatic facilities in the world — is potentially at the mercy of rockets and artillery from Iraqi militia forces. Already, in September, Pompeo personally threatened to pull all personnel out of the embassy unless the Iraqi government managed to rein in attacks on Americans assigned there.
But these militia forces, it seems, are building strength and reach thanks to support from Iran and its Revolutionary Guard. Pompeo hasn't fully waded into the conflict. But the death of more Americans in Iraq could provoke an American response. NBC News' Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee reported that Trump had authorized Soleimani's killing seven months before it took place — and that it was dependent on whether Iranian-backed aggression led to American deaths. It did, and the U.S. military acted.
Yet today, U.S. forces are arguably more vulnerable in Iraq than they were in January, and with the drawdown of forces over the next two months, they will likely become even more so.
There are at least 20 new Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, and, as one of America's leading observers of Shiite militias, Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me, "some have claimed attacks on U.S. forces, and all have demanded the U.S. pull out of Iraq." In September, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Iraq's foreign minister, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said, the two described the withdrawal of U.S. forces as a "collective duty."
Indeed, within hours of the Pentagon announcement of partial troop withdrawals, streaks of red light crossed the sky as militia units lobbed four rockets into Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone. It was a clear flexing of might and an end to a truce that had been declared unilaterally by the militias. It could also mark the start of a season of retaliation as the Soleimani anniversary approaches — a most inopportune time for U.S. withdrawals.
At this point, Iran and Iraq are very closely linked. So Trump's eagerness to bait, challenge and even attack Iran could well raise the threat level for remaining U.S. forces in Iraq and U.S. interests well beyond.
That Trump would even be considering such action is surprising. Any military action by the United States would also likely make Iran more reluctant to entertain the restraints on nuclear weapon development in the Obama-era pact known as the JCPOA.
Trump withdrew from the multinational agreement more than two years ago, but President-elect Joe Biden has indicated his interest in reversing course. Even in a perfect scenario, this won't be easy. Iran has been cagey, with some officials quietly suggesting that the new administration would have to return to the nuclear accord without any conditions attached. Any violent action by Trump — coupled with the inevitable reaction by Tehran — would only make a path to diplomacy more tortuous.
With these undercurrents, then, the atmosphere in Paris this week was hardly surprising. Talks between Pompeo, on his last major overseas swing, and French President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were described as strained, with both French leaders said to have been "embarrassed." Le Drian, in particular, let it be known that he was utterly opposed to Trump's plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, where France continues to have substantial commercial interests. (France began withdrawing all its military forces from Iraq in March as the coronavirus began to spread.)
With these stakes and Trump's apparent determination to tighten the screws on Iran in some fashion, it's also no wonder he is reluctant to give the president-elect full access to current intelligence, ordinarily a routine step in an orderly transfer of power between administrations. Biden's ability to monitor real-time, actionable intelligence developed by U.S. agencies could give him insight into any moves Trump might be contemplating in Iran or Iraq. (And perhaps give Biden an opportunity to head them off.)
Hence the urgency for the president-elect and his national security team to be given full access immediately. Otherwise, the risk is that Trump will cause the kind of toxic and even deadly diplomatic crisis that Biden will be hard-pressed to undo.