News Analysis: Will Soleimani killing make Putin think twice?

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This single act of rashness may be the step too far for the rest of the world to contemplate with equanimity

In the wake of the assassination of Iranian military supremo Qassem Soleimani by the US on January 3, the world is bracing for the revenge that Iran has sworn to exact. Commentators are more or less unanimous that the assassination had made the entire Middle East a far more dangerous arena, and that we can expect Iran to retaliate by attacking American and allied targets across the globe.

However, I am not so sure that Iran would wish to invite this kind of escalation to a war it cannot win. It can inflict tremendous damage on the US but the US can always inflict worse. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019 | ReutersOne benefit to the US of having an unstable sociopath as president is that this fact will give its enemies serious pause before acting against it. Iran will have to think long and hard before going down the path of a military or para-military response directly targeting the US or American assets.  

President Trump has himself doubled down by tweeting that if Iran does target the US in retaliation, that the US has already targeted for counter-strike “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

File photo: US President Donald Trump delivers remarks following the US Military airstrike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in West Palm Beach, Florida, US, January 3, 2020 | Reuters

It may well be that Iran will conclude that rather than get into a potentially ruinous war that it cannot win, that the simpler and safer option would be to do everything in its power to ensure that Trump is removed from office in November. I would imagine that their every effort will be focused on this one goal, rather than on exacting a more visible or palpable vengeance.

But, more crucially, President Trump’s audacious start to the new year may well be giving other major players around the globe, including erstwhile allies, pause for thought as well.

I would not be surprised if even Russian President Putin has wondered whether diminishing returns are not setting in with respect to a Trump presidency. As much of a useful idiot as Trump may have been to the Russian cause over his three years in office, Putin may well now be considering whether he is simply too dangerous to leave in place as the most powerful person on Earth.

Iranians gather to mourn General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Tehran, Iran January 4, 2020 | ReutersMy bet is that Russia, Iran, and China will now quietly go all in to ensure that Trump is removed from office in November, if not before. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were joined in this goal by US allies. I doubt anyone is sanguine at the thought of a trigger-happy occupant of the Oval Office with no qualms about completely up-ending the world order.

President Trump may well have crossed a Rubicon with his assassination of Soleimani. This single act of rashness may be the step too far for the rest of the world to contemplate with equanimity. This could be the beginning of the end for him. 

More important than anything else is what this does to Trump’s relationship with Putin and whether the latter has concluded that the time has now come to cash in his chips and walk away from the dangerous game he has been playing.