Let’s be 1,000% clear on this: If Trump wants the conflict with Iran to end now, it will end now. The pointless, potentially disastrous piece of brinkmanship he initiated by assassinating Gen. Qasem Soleimani on the “thin” intelligence that he was planning attacks on U.S. personnel led to Iran firing missiles at two bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. Clearly, the Ayatollah felt like he had to respond, but was quick to note after the attacks that he and the Iranians don’t want war:
The Iranian foreign minister said on Wednesday that his country had “concluded” its attacks on American forces and did “not seek escalation or war” after firing more than 20 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where United States troops are stationed.
It also appears, for the time being, that there were no deaths among Americans or Iraqis at the based. It’s even possible that Iran warned the Americans about the attack, wanting symbolic retaliation for the death of Soleimani, but also wanting to avoid war.
If this is the price Trump has to pay for this mini-escalation, it’s an incredibly small price. All he has to do is accept the fact that Iran had the last play, that their move was weak and largely inconsequential, and nip this whole thing in the bud before it gets really out of hand.
By doing so, he will avoid the horrific death totals—American and otherwise—that would come from another prolonged, unwinnable war in the Middle East. Let Iran claim that 80 U.S. soldiers were killed, as their press agencies have begun to do. Let the Ayatollah call it a “slap to the face” of the Americans, and have his small victory. Then move on. And if “moving on” means leaving the region entirely, as the Iraqis have requested, all the better.
War has its own intractable momentum, and it’s incredibly hard to stop when the first moves have begun. On both sides, there will be powerful figures urging leaders to engage in more and more violence until a full-blown war becomes inevitable. Even now, Trump is surely being presented with options for further retaliation. It’s up to him to put a stop to this momentum now, while the concept of war with Iran is still in its infancy. If things go much further, he’ll no longer have the choice.