Book reveals Trump’s Soleimani gamble was right to downplay 'war' fear

Trump correctly gambled that Iran can’t afford a major war and won’t really retaliate for the Soleimani hit.

DONALD TRUMP has said on many occasions that he will be president for life.  (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
DONALD TRUMP has said on many occasions that he will be president for life.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump gambled in striking at Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January. Instead of caving to fears that a war might result, he went forward with the bold decision to kill Iran’s most well-known soldier, the shadowy general who had threatened Israel, the US and allies across the Middle East.
Iran couldn’t afford to go to war with the US, knowing it would result in the end of the Iranian regime. It preferred to boast of “revenge” while only carrying out ballistic-missile attacks that didn’t kill US soldiers.
These are the revelations that appear in the new book Rage by Bob Woodward. Excerpts from the book have already rocked Washington with claims that Trump downplayed COVID-19, and more revelations are likely to come in the lead-up to the US elections.
However, when it comes to the Soleimani hit, the book paints a picture of a calculating Trump who made a decisive decision that went against the fear-mongering of experts, politicians and advisers.
According to accounts published online, powerful US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a key foreign-policy player and close to Trump, was concerned about striking Soleimani. He warned that it was “over the top” and a “giant step” and that it would lead to “almost total war.” He suggested striking someone of lower standing, an attack that Iran could “absorb.”
Trump, who is knowledgeable about casino odds, was presented by Graham with a comparison to gambling. Killing the Iranian shadow commander would be like going from playing blackjack at $10 a hand to $10,000. The context of the conversation was an attack by Iranian-backed militias that killed a US contractor near Kirkuk on December 27. Airstrikes ordered by the US and certainly approved by Trump hit Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah on December 29.
We now know that the next day, pro-Iranian groups led by Hadi al-Amiri of Badr Organization and others, such as Qais Khazali, Kataib Hezbollah head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and PMU leader Faleh al-Fayyad, planned an attack on the US Embassy. They rallied their forces, disguised as protesters the next day on December 31. Soleimani planned to fly to Baghdad on January 3 to coordinate confrontation with the US.
While playing golf with Graham on December 30, Trump broached the idea of striking Soleimani, Business Insider website reported. Trump said he was thinking of hitting Soleimani. This would be a “new game” if the US escalated like this, Graham warned. Iran might retaliate and then a cycle would lead to “total war.” Graham mentioned that the US would have to take out Iran’s “oil refineries.”
Of interest here, according to the account published, is that Trump said Soleimani deserved it, especially since “We have all these intercepts showing Soleimani is planning attacks.” Trump was adamant that Iran couldn’t get away with the December 27 attack that had killed the contractor. The US had already warned Iran earlier in December and also in 2018 that proxy attacks would be viewed by Washington as attacks carried out by Tehran.
The book hints that Trump had been talking about striking Soleimani for days. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had heard the talk before and asked Graham about it.
If the account is accurate, then it means Trump had the idea to strike Soleimani for days, perhaps longer. It also means that Graham was concerned that escalation could lead to war.
Trump had already had to face these questions in June 2019. After Iran downed a US Global Hawk drone, Trump had considered striking Iran in retaliation. He had called off the airstrikes at the last minute. Trump called off the attack in June after learning it could lead to up to 150 Iranian deaths in strikes planned on three facilities in retaliation. The US was “cocked and loaded” but was “in no hurry,” Trump later said.
On January 3, when Soleimani landed at Baghdad International Airport and met Muhandis, he was tracked by a US drone. His convoy was struck with missiles as he left the terminal to a road leading to the airport. This time the US was not merely cocked and loaded; it decided to take the shot. The result of the strike was an Iranian ballistic-missile attack on al-Asad air base and on another base near Erbil.
Iran planned its retaliation quickly. It had put in place the orders by January 7. US soldiers got intelligence that evening about the upcoming attack that would unfold hours later on January 8. In the end, no one was killed in the ballistic-missile attack, but more than 100 suffered traumatic brain injuries. It was a serious attack, but not a major war, and Trump didn’t respond. In March, when three members of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition were killed at Camp Taji, the US retaliated against Kataib Hezbollah.
This has now become the new normal in Iraq. Pro-Iranian groups carry out rocket attacks on bases where US soldiers are housed and also carry out explosive attacks on trucks that supply the soldiers. Over the last six months, the US has withdrawn from eight facilities in Iraq and will draw down troops to only a few thousand from 5,200. Most will be concentrated in the Kurdistan region or at al-Asad and in Baghdad.
In a sense, the Iranian-backed pressure on US troops has had its desired effect. But this also reveals the Iranian way of doing “war.” Iran doesn’t do major wars. It can’t confront the US. Instead, it uses proxies and plausible deniability.
It mined six ships in the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019. It has ordered dozens of attacks on facilities where US forces are present, using 107-mm. rockets. It knows these are inaccurate rockets that don’t usually kill anyone. This is designed for harassment, because Iran knows the US will carry out strikes if soldiers are killed. This is the “contested deterrence” that CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie has put in place.
Trump correctly gambled that Iran can’t afford a major war and won’t really retaliate for the Soleimani hit. Instead, Iran will operationalize its proxies, such as militias in Iraq or Hezbollah and the Houthis. Graham was pushing the usual playbook that asserts there is a chance of war with Iran. For instance, during discussions about the Iran deal in 2015, the usual refrain in Washington among supporters of the deal was that if the US didn’t do a deal, then there might be “war.”
However, there is no chance of a real war with Iran because Iran can’t afford a war. What Iran seeks to do is to provoke US allies, such as its September attack on Saudi Arabia using drones and cruise missiles. Iran’s constant military drills and exhibits of new missiles and drones are a message that it has weapons it can use without risking troops in battle with the US and its allies.
Its goal is to use missiles, drones and mines, but not to fight a conventional war with the US. Trump gambled in January that Iran wouldn’t start a real conflict, and so far he has been proven correct.