Very few people in the Western world mourned the recent targeted assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the chief mastermind of Iranian aggression and terror efforts. But there was widespread questioning in the midst of bellicose finger pointing and threats, seeking to understand where the assassination fit in President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and how and where the Islamic Republic would respond.
In the time since the assassination, we have heard varying accounts from administration officials — including some inconsistent and confusing public comments and tweets from the president — regarding the justifications for the U.S. action. Administration officials said the U.S. military carried out the hit because Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force, posed an “imminent threat.” According to the president, we did it “because they were looking to blow up our embassy.” He then said, “I believe it would have been four embassies.” Those claims contradicted intelligence assessments from others in the administration, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper admitted that he hadn’t seen such embassy threat assessments.
Then there were the members of Congress from both political parties who anxiously awaited the administration’s classified briefing, hoping to gain a more comprehensive understanding of developments based upon the supposed sharing of secret information. Although the details of that briefing are not being discussed, the disappointment with its content goes beyond the largely unproductive partisan bickering that characterizes virtually every involvement of Donald Trump with his Democrat rivals.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called the briefing “lame.” And although Lee praised Trump in an op-ed, saying he “has shown restraint in exercising military power around the globe — more so than any other president in my lifetime,” he chided administration officials for not providing the “factual predicate for the attack (that) obviated the need for any congressional authorization.” And he blanched at the administration’s warning about debating the appropriateness of the assassination effort, or “even of any further, future military intervention against Iran.” Senate Democrats were less constrained in their criticism.
Then came the deadly missile attack on a Ukrainian airliner at Tehran International Airport, which killed all 176 people aboard. The Iranian government initially denied any involvement. Three days later, after the production of conclusive evidence and significant international pressure, Iran changed its story, and admitted that its forces mistakenly shot down the jetliner.
The best thing that can be said for both the U.S. and Iran being caught up in explanations for what has happened is that neither side seems interested in ratcheting up the already volatile situation, or taking steps toward more intense confrontation. Indeed, even the accusations and threats being issued by both sides seem to be more reserved, almost as if there is mutual recognition that some cooling off period is necessary.
Although that doesn’t answer any of the many outstanding questions, the relative calm is welcome.