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Mideast expert from University of Utah calls strike on Iranian general a ‘game-changer’

Referring to Soleimani as a ‘terrorist,’ Utah politicians await more details on Trump’s approach to Iran

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to the press outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to the press staked outside his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer

SALT LAKE CITY — An expert on the Middle East called the U.S. killing of an Iranian general a “game-changer” in the sparring between the two countries, but the next move is anyone’s guess.

The targeted airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, early Friday morning is different than U.S. forces taking down a terrorist such as Osama bin Laden.

“Here it’s the U.S. attacking a state actor. That is a very significant game-changer,” Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor, said in a telephone interview from his native Israel.

President Donald Trump ordered the drone attack that killed Soleimani at Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning local time. The attack has the potential to dramatically increase already rising tensions in the Middle East and prompt Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops in the region.

Guiora said Iran has to decide whether to up the ante from mere rhetoric to something more, and if so, who, when and where would retaliation be directed.

“I don’t think any of us have a sense of how the Iranians will react, beyond the rhetoric,” he said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised revenge against those who killed the general, while the U.S. has sent more troops to the Middle East.

Miles Hansen, the former director for Gulf Affairs on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said there’s no question Iran needs to strike back.

“They need to save face. They need to project their power, their influence,” he said. “And yet they’re doing it at a time when their power is very much constrained, so the stakes are very high for the Iranian regime.”

Iran is under intense pressure amid widespread anti-Iranian protests in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as anti-regime protests in Iran. Khamenei himself needs to make up for losing his top general, but if he overextends himself he could “lose his head in a very real way,” said Hansen, who now heads World Trade Center Utah.

Hansen said he expects Iran to retaliate against Americans and American organizations and allies with kidnappings, targeted attacks and assassination attempts through its proxies.

Now that the U.S. has escalated the situation, it needs to put on a full court press that amplifies anti-Iranian sentiment in the region, he said.

“This is a very challenging campaign for influence and degrading their security abilities that we need to be ready to wage given the escalation and the counterpunch that is undoubtedly going to be coming from Iran,” Hansen said. “We need to be prepared to defend against that and to suffer losses due to Iran’s desire, as they put it, to exact revenge for the death of Qassem Soleimani.”

Guiora said Israelis are concerned because the rhetoric coming out of Iran is directed at the U.S. as well as Israel.

“But it’s more complicated than that because the Iranians have proxies in essence on Israel’s borders,” Guiora said.

Utahns in Congress react

Going to war with Iran is the last thing Trump wants to do, Rep. Chris Stewart said Friday.

“I think he will be measured. I think he’ll be thoughtful,” the Utah Republican said, adding there’s no urgency to respond immediately to Iranian threats of retaliation. “But it’s important for the Iranian leadership to know we’re not going to let them push us forever.”

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he’s grateful for the president’s commitment to decisive and “fairly bold” action and expressed “great confidence” in him and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But the U.S. isn’t looking for fight, and the “very last thing” Trump wants is to engage in war with Iran, Stewart said.

“We’re not looking for an escalation. We’re not looking for a conflict with Iranian leadership. We don’t want to have a conflict with the Iranian people. We want to defend America’s interests and American lives in the region,” he said on KSL Newsradio.

“It’s important to note we didn’t respond when they took our tankers or attacked the Saudi oil fields, but when they kill American citizens like they did within the last several weeks, we will respond and it’s important for the Iranian leadership to know that,” Stewart said.

Guiora said he doesn’t think there is any immediate impact to American national security, and America isn’t any more or less safe than before the strike. But, he said, it does send a clear message to Iran that the U.S. has limits.

A call for strategy

Sen. Mitt Romney on Thursday night called for the United States and its allies to “articulate and pursue a coherent strategy” in the days and weeks ahead.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Thursday night, Romney described Soleimani as a “depraved terrorist who had the blood of hundreds of American servicemen and women on his hands, and who was doubtlessly planning operations to further harm our citizens and allies.”

“We remember and honor the sacrifice of those servicemen and women, and we commend our brave troops and intel officers who carried out this successful mission,” Romney said in his statement. “At this time of increased tension in the region, the U.S. must take necessary steps to protect our personnel there and beyond.”

The Utah senator is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, which deals with U.S. relations with countries in the Middle East.

Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, said no one is mourning the death of Soleimani.

“I think I feel the same sense of outrage that we all do and certainly he deserved consequences,” he said on KSL Newsradio.

McAdams said his thoughts are now on U.S. military men and women who put their lives on the line the to defend the country. He said wants to make sure that any risks they are asked to take are “worth it” and that there’s a coherent and long-term strategy to protect the United States.

The first-term congressman said he hope there are no “games” played in Congress and that partisanship has nothing to do with decisions going forward.

“This is a time to work with the president, Republicans and Democrats to gather information and then to make those decisions that we believe are in the best interest of our country,” McAdams said. “Reasonable people will disagree about the best path forward, but we need to make that decision with interest of our country at heart.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, issued a two-line statement Friday on the killing of Soleimani:

“The death of Qasem Soleimani is a big victory for the safety of the American people. As always, I am anxious to learn about the legal justification for this action, and look forward to being briefed by the Pentagon and the White House,” he said.

Lee maintains that acts of war must run through Congress.

Stewart said the president didn’t and shouldn’t have to seek congressional approval before launching the airstrike. He said it could compromise the security of that information and set a precedent that the president couldn’t do that when he “clearly” has to ability to defend American lives in those situations.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, tweeted: “With reports of Soleimani actively plotting more attacks against the US, the President acted decisively to protect countless lives including our service members, diplomats, and everyday citizens.”

Curtis, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he expects a briefing from the Trump administration “as soon as possible.”

Recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran can be traced back to May 2018, when Trump made the decision to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. The agreement was made in 2015 under President Barack Obama.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Associated Press reports.

The department also accused Soleimani of approving an attack this week on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by demonstrators protesting American airstrikes on an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq. The two-day embassy attack led Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East and led Romney to call for tighter sanctions and worldwide condemnation of Iran.

In response to the attack on Soleimani, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani took to the social media app Telegram to warn the U.S. of retaliation from Tehran, the Associated Press reports.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Trump, who was reportedly vacationing in Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday, sent out a tweet of an American flag after the attack.

Iraqi officials said the airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, according to the Associated Press.

In his statement Thursday night, Romney emphasized the importance of a “coherent strategy” for the United States and its allies going forward.

“With ever increasing challenges confronting us in the Middle East, it is imperative that the U.S. and our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region,” Romney said. “I will be pressing the Administration for additional details in the days ahead.”

Contributing: Gretel Kauffman, Boyd Matheson