Almost immediately after President Donald Trump’s long-distance assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was announced, our guest today, Matthew Hoh of the Center for International Policy, neatly summed up the murdered head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “It would be,” Hoh said, “as if the Iranians assassinated General Richard Clarke, the U.S. four star general in charge of all U.S. special operations, but only if General Clarke had the name recognition of Colin Powell and the competency of Dwight Eisenhower.”
Given the magnitude of the Iranians’ loss, Matt’s instinctive response was that of any good combat officer, especially one with military (and diplomatic) experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Prepare for incoming.”
His assumption, widely shared, was that “Those Iranians in government and civil society who want restraint, de-escalation and dialogue will find it hard to argue against retaliation.”
As it turned out, reality was more nuanced than a 0/1 – retaliate or not – choice; the Iranians went for a measured, restrained retaliation, one contained enough to be a declaration – “We don’t want war!” – and a demonstration of how damaging just the concussive effects of today’s high explosives can be. Their limited missile attacks on two bases in Iraq left at least 50 American service people injured. In other words, the Iran message continued – “You don’t want war either. So, don’t push it.”
The short-term effects of Trump’s drone strike were all good, at least for him: He distracted November voters from the details of his impeachment; he looked tough and his polls scores went up; and he got to do his schoolyard bully thing – “We hit them harder and they flinched. We won.”
But beyond the news cycle? The point of foreign relations – even bullying, even war – is to gain a better peace. The Obama Administration negotiated the nuclear weapons agreement figuring peace with an Iran not developing nuclear arms was inherently better. For the Trump Administration, it wasn’t “better” enough. The White House dumped the agreement and sought opportunities to butt heads with Iran to force it into a more compliant direction.
No war. That’s clearly the Trump policy towards Iran. The Soleimani assassination was just the latest of several opportunities for Trump to go past the brink. Which he refused to take. But no peace, either, not in any way, shape or form, between the U.S. and Iran.
Which makes some conversations Matt Hoh’s been having all the more interesting, and I would say, necessary. Matt Hoh has been talking with Iranians about, among other things, peace.
Matthew Hoh is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and is the former Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. A former State Department official, Matthew resigned in
protest from his post in Afghanistan over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew served in Iraq; first in 2004-5 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006-7 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander. When not deployed, Matthew worked on Afghanistan and Iraq policy and operations issues at the Pentagon and State Department from 2002-8. Matthew’s writings have appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Defense News, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The Council on Foreign Relations has cited Matthew’s resignation letter from his post in Afghanistan as an Essential Document. In 2010, Matthew was named the Ridenhour Prize Recipient for Truth Telling.