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Editorial: Facing the new Middle East problems

US Iran (copy)

Supporters of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group, hold signs and flags across the street from the White House on Sunday during a show of support for a U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Alex Brandon/AP

President Trump’s order to kill the commanding general of Iran’s special forces while he was in Iraq, likely plotting more attacks on American targets, has raised a host of problems for the president, America, Iran and Iraq.

Despite all the complaints to the contrary, he was acting within his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief. U.S. forces had been attacked and were further threatened, clearly on orders from Iran.

The president acted after Iran, working through its Iraqi proxies, attacked American bases in Iraq and killed an American contractor. He did so in part to deter further attacks by making it clear that the cost will be high, and in part to fulfill his promise that he would respond forcefully if  Iran took American lives.

Mr. Trump made that promise clear on June 20, when he aborted a retaliatory strike on Iranian targets after Iran downed an American drone in international airspace. At the time, he said killing Iranians would be a disproportionate response to shooting down an unmanned aircraft. His top military leaders followed with statements that the United States would not attack Iran unless it killed Americans.

Mr. Trump enforced his red line. But he still has not attacked on Iranian soil. Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, however, he has warned that further attacks on Americans will be met with overwhelming force.

The biggest question going forward, for the president and for our forces in the Middle East, is just how seriously Iran’s leaders take him.

Iran has acted provocatively in recent months in an effort to get Mr. Trump to relax his campaign of economic pressure aimed at persuading Iran to renegotiate the terms of its nuclear program and cease efforts to dominate the Middle East and threaten U.S. allies.

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The fact that Iran ignored his previous red line and has generated massive protests of the killing is not promising. But Iran expert and former Obama adviser Ray Takeyh wrote for Foreign Affairs that we are unlikely to see a “dramatic escalation” because “the clerical oligarchs ... tend to retreat in the face of American determination.”

It’s a good bet that Iran won’t seek an unequal war. Its first move to counter Mr. Trump’s policies has been to say it will violate the existing nuclear pact, a move that will alienate European governments, further isolating itself.

It also encouraged Iran-leaning Shia parties in Iraq’s parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution that American forces must leave Iraq. That raises the long-standing problem of who will control Iraq.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been a close political adviser of Mr. Trump, said Sunday on “Fox and Friends” that “the overwhelming opinion of Iraqis is that they don’t want Iran to run Iraq.” That has been shown by recent large-scale demonstrations throughout Iraq. While confessing that he is “worried about the stability of the Iraqi government,” Sen. Graham said he is hopeful that Iraqis will understand they need American troops to preserve stability and prevent Iran from taking over.

Last but not least on the list of problems is the way the American political system has reacted to developments. Former Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut had some sensible things to say about that in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday. In “The Democrats and Iran,” he wrote that President Trump’s order to kill Soleimani “deserves more bipartisan support than the begrudging or negative reactions it has received thus far from my fellow Democrats.” The response to date creates the risk, he worried, “that the U.S. will be seen as acting and speaking with less authority abroad at this important time.”

Indeed. Raising a question about Mr. Trump’s authority could seriously undermine the message of determination he is sending to the ayatollahs and make further conflict more likely.

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