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How to Avoid Another War in the Middle East

De-escalating After the Soleimani Strike

A protest against the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, January 2020 Nazanin Tabatabaee / Reuters

Killing the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani may well have been the most consequential foreign policy decision of Donald Trump’s presidency. Its repercussions will be felt for days, months, and even years to come—but what exactly they will be depends on what the Trump administration does next.

The strike has been explained by senior U.S. officials as both an effort to deter future Iranian aggression and an act of preventive defense in the face of an imminent attack. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are already out crowing with patriotic tweets reminiscent of the “Mission Accomplished” banners rolled out in the first weeks of the Iraq war. But what was true then in Iraq is true now: the crisis will not end here.

Iran’s retaliatory actions will unfold over time, often in ways no one expects, and they won’t be limited to Iraq or even to the Middle East. The Trump administration needs to prepare for a full range of contingencies: cyberattacks, terrorist attacks abroad and on U.S. soil, attempts to assassinate U.S. officials, and more assaults on Saudi oil fields. Iran will likely take more provocative steps on its nuclear program: in fact, the country was already expected to announce its latest move away from the 2015 nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Trump needs a strategy that does more than respond to Iran’s tactical moves as they come. He must decide how he wants to resolve this crisis and work backward from there. The U.S. goal at this point should be to de-escalate the situation and avoid a wider war, and to do so in a way that leaves Americans safer in the long term. To this end, the administration will need to send clear, consistent messages that are not unnecessarily provocative, while quietly working to ensure the safety of vulnerable U.S. diplomatic outposts. Washington should coordinate with U.S. allies, and it must attempt to open

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