Iran assassination plot shows flaws of Trump aggressive foreign policy

  • Reports emerged this month that Iran was plotting to assassinate the US’s ambassador to South Africa.
  • The supposed plot, eight months after the US’s assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is another sign that Trump’s aggressive foreign policy creates more risks than it resolves, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
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Iran’s alleged intent to assassinate US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks is odd news, to say the least.

Marks has no obvious connection to the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, for which this exposed plot would be retribution. Nor has South Africa figured significantly in the last four years’ deterioration of US-Iran relations.

But whatever the reason for Marks’ implication, this suspected plot should be a lesson for US foreign policy: Reckless interventionism will have unintended consequences, which means Washington’s lack of restraint and diplomacy can unwittingly make the United States less secure.

For Americans preoccupied with election season and COVID-19, the Soleimani killing may seem like a storyline that ended months ago. It is not. Iran doesn’t share our short political memory, and it is not surprising that the Iranian regime may not consider its deathless retaliatory strike on Iraqi military bases housing US troops an end to the affair.

Lana Marks

Lana Marks in Soweto, South Africa, in June 2020.

Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images via Getty Images


The step away from war Washington and Tehran chose at the beginning of this year was wise, particularly with the hindsight we now have regarding the pandemic.

Yet that pause should not be mistaken for any sort of resolution of the crisis which preceded it. This is not a détente. We’ve managed to maintain a mutually hostile status quo instead of devolving into open conflict or forcible regime change, but US-Iranian relations are not mended.

On the contrary, all the context for the Soleimani strike and Iran’s initial retribution measure remains intact eight months later. The Trump administration strategy’s goal is still regime change.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are still committed to “maximum pressure,” which is successful only in exacerbating Iran’s humanitarian needs and incentivizing further covert violence and regional trouble-making from a Tehran desperate to demonstrate it won’t be cowed into submission.

The United States still has ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, flanking Iran with military deployments our president has said outright are useful for monitoring — and, by implication, potentially attacking — Iran “because Iran is a real problem.”

Trump is also still backing Saudi Arabia in its brutal intervention in Yemen’s civil war, simultaneously a proxy conflict with Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani still says he wants the US to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal Trump abandoned, but Iran’s decision to increase its enriched uranium stockpile above the deal’s limits in a bid for US concessions still hasn’t led to productive negotiations.

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Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrate Rouhani’s election victory, in Tehran, May 20, 2017.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP


Any appearance of resolution here was a mirage. The recent quiet from Iran is reportedly due to COVID-19 and attention to the US electoral calendar, not any new acquiescence to Washington’s pressure.

Or, if our information on the Marks assassination plot is correct, Tehran has simply moved its antagonism out of sight since this past winter. The unintended consequences of our interventionist foreign policy weren’t escaped or even suspended; we simply didn’t see them for a little while.

Such repercussions can often be ignored in Washington because the sheer strength of the United States military, our natural geographic security advantages, and our unparalleled wealth make large-scale consequences like conquest unthinkable. There is no realistic scenario, for example, in which Iran could invade and vanquish the United States.

But that sort of conventional defeat is not the only risk belligerence and coercion toward Iran occasions. US military attacks on other countries’ self-perceived core interests — like assassinating a national hero in a position analogous to secretary of defense—will be met with retaliation.

The cost in blood and treasure will never do us existential damage, but it is not to be on that count dismissed or downplayed.

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Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrate after Rouhani’s presidential election victory in May 2017.

Majid Saeedi/Getty


Happily, this belligerence and coercion isn’t necessary for our defense. We could trade threats and threat-inflation for deterrence and, eventually, effective diplomacy.

That’s safe and feasible because Iran is not a substantial or imminent threat to the United States. It is a middling power already constrained by regional enemies (like Israel and Saudi Arabia). Its entire economy is exceeded by the Pentagon budget alone, and it receives wildly disproportionate attention in our politics and foreign policy.

For the US, the biggest danger connected to Iran is a risk of our own making: the possibility of yet another multi-decade war creating needless suffering and sapping American strength.

If Washington won’t move toward restraint, living by the sword may not mean dying by the sword for the world’s sole superpower, skirmishing against enemies armed with pocketknives. But enough small jabs will eventually bleed us dry.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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