The smoke had not yet cleared above the crater in which the body of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani’s languished before the American press pronounced its verdict. “Trump’s Iran war has begun,” pronounced Vox.com’s Zack Beauchamp. Donald Trump’s “actions put the U.S. on a new path of escalation,” McClatchy reported. The president had “miscalculated,” in the view of the Independent’s deputy political editor Rob Merrick. “This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder,” the New York Times quoted the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister as saying. “With Soleimani dead, war is coming.” Trump sought to “bully” Iran by appealing to the “Jacksonian logic of sudden and terrifying force as a first and last resort,” New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore opined. Soleimani’s “assassination,” as New Yorker’s Robin Wright characterized it, was “tantamount to an act of war.”
In the ten days that have elapsed, these reactions to the Trump administration’s strike seem more than a little hyperbolic. But that hyperbole was not a product of the fog of war. Those who adopted a cautious response to the president’s actions were informed by the months of preamble leading up to this confrontation, to say nothing of the basics of international relations.
Before Trump’s strike on Soleimani, Iran had engaged in a campaign of attacks on American interests for which it faced no proportionate consequences. When the United States finally did proportionately respond to the killing of a U.S. contractor and the wounding of three service personnel in one of the regular rocket attacks on American positions by Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Iran’s proxy forces mounted the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that put the U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq in jeopardy. As I wrote at the time, this was not escalatory but de-escalatory. The administration’s attempt to impose unacceptable costs on a reckless adversary while degrading its capacity to execute attacks on American interests and those of its allies was an effort to step back from the precipice of direct, conventional conflict.
If observers were shocked by Iran’s attempt to take the temperature down with a face-saving volley of rockets into Iraq (which were self-limited, and those limits were communicated to Iraq and the United States), they should not have been. These events might have represented the best-case scenario for the Trump administration, but the administration did not luck its way into a textbook method for deterring an aggressive and revisionist adversary. To recognize the strategy, you need to have read the textbook.
But the press and commentariat had not learned their lesson. The Iranian regime’s posthumous beatification of its most cherished warlord was met with almost no skepticism from the Western press. Few observers questioned why American reporters could parachute into Tehran to cover a funeral in a country that had shut off the Internet amid anti-regime protests just six weeks earlier. Those reporters were there to see what the regime wanted them to see, and the subsequent coverage could not have disappointed the Mullahs. In U.S. media, Soleimani was eulogized as a “national hero,” a “revered figure,” and a “beloved” presence who “made Iranians proud.” “Knowing General Soleimani was out there made me feel safer,” said one Iranian university student whose quote the New York Times featured in its profile of a nation in “mourning.”
Within days of this dispatch, those Iranian students and thousands more were out in force in the streets. They attacked the Iranian regime’s legitimacy, tore down the ubiquitous banners adorned with Soleimani face, declined to engage in displays of contempt for the United States, and drew fire from forces loyal to the theocratic government. This, too, was not an unforeseeable development.
In the weeks that preceded the Soleimani strike, waves of anti-Iranian demonstrations paralyzed cities in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Much of the catalyst for those demonstrations was a healthy antipathy toward Iran’s foreign adventurism; Iraqis and Lebanese resented Iranian influence over their respective governments and Iranians rejected Iran’s foreign commitments at a time of unprecedented economic hardship. Only days prior, Western audiences were dutifully informed that President Trump’s blusterous threat to target Iranian cultural sites in response to further provocations had “united Iranians against him.” So much for that.
Of course, the event that sparked renewed anti-regime protests was the regime’s mistaken decision to target and destroy a civilian airliner. After several days of obfuscation and efforts to hide the evidence of its involvement, Iran eventually admitted that it was responsible for the crash. It takes a special simplicity to absolve Iran for the actions of an Iranian fire commander in open airspace 500 miles from where Iran was firing an unreciprocated volley of rockets at U.S. troops, but that was nevertheless a feature of how some in media covered that event.
CNN analyst Susan Hennessey and NBC’s Heidi Przybyla attributed the attack on a passenger jet that had just taken off from Tehran’s commercial airport to “crossfire,” though there had been no exchange of fire. “Escalation has consequences,” read Vox.com editor Aaron Rupar’s bloodless rebuke. “An Iranian general dies in U.S. attack, and innocents suffer,” the Associated Press’s headline blared.
These reactions are not fueled by partisan politics or a lack of background information alone. They are the product of a unique form of chauvinism that strips foreign actors of agency and attributes events abroad to machinations in Washington D.C. As New York Times analyst Max Fisher wrote, the origins of the present standoff between the U.S. and Iran can be traced back to the moment Trump “withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord, imposed crushing sanctions on Iran and issued a series of maximalist demands.” But even under the JCPOA, Iran was executing starvation campaigns in Syria, threatening to choke off commerce through the Gulf of Aden via proxy forces, and parading captured American sailors on camera, forcing them to read capitulatory statements in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. Iran’s behavior is not dictated by or dependent on the actions of Americans. To presume otherwise is to adopt a distorted view of how nations define their interests and go about securing them. What’s more, such heedless solipsism gives American audiences no insight into the conduct of statecraft.
That is not to say that ideological politics played no role in these unfortunate displays. If Iran returns to a campaign of unconventional conflict within its region, it would not be optimal by any means. It would, however, be a return to a form that typified Iran’s conduct for the last 40 years. What Trump needed to do, and what he seems to have succeeded in doing, was to force Iran to back away from provocative conduct that might have forced the U.S. to respond against its military and government targets, inaugurating the conventional war that no one wants. But you can be sure that the press will cover that reversion to a behavioral mean as though it was an unprecedented and even deserved response to Trump’s aggression. It will dominate the headlines in a way that Iran’s piracy and sabotage in the Strait of Hormuz, it’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and its brazen assault on the world’s largest petroleum processing facility in Saudi Arabia did not. And the objective will not be to inform but to influence.