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Trump is a timebomb

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War with Iran would be an absolute catastrophe, which we might avoid and we might not:

A deadly opening attack. Nearly untraceable, ruthless proxies spreading chaos on multiple continents. Costly miscalculations. And thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — killed in a conflict that would dwarf the war in Iraq.

Welcome to the US-Iran war, which has the potential to be one of the worst conflicts in history.

The Thursday night killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who led Iranian covert operations and intelligence and was one of the country’s most senior leaders, brought Washington and Tehran closer to fighting that war. Iran has every incentive to retaliate, experts says, using its proxies to target US commercial interests in the Middle East, American allies, or even American troops and diplomats hunkered down in regional bases and embassies. 

It’s partly why the Eurasia Group, a prominent international consulting firm, now puts the chance of “a limited or major military confrontation” at 40 percent.

But the seeds of conflict weren’t planted with Thursday’s airstrikes alone. Washington and Tehran have remained locked in a months-long standoff that only continues to escalate. The US imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy over its support for terrorism and its growing missile program, among other things, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal last year; Iran has fought back by violating parts of the nuclear agreement, bombing oil tankers, and downing an American military drone.

The crisis has become more acute over the past week. An Iranian-backed militia killed an American contractor while wounding others in rocket attacks, leading the Trump administration to order retaliatory strikes on five targets in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of the militia’s fighters. In protest, the militia — Ketaib Hezbollah — organized a rally outside the US embassy in Baghdad where some got inside the compound and set parts of it ablaze.

That led Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to tell reporters on Thursday that “if we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” adding “the game has changed.” The US killed Suleimani hours after that statement, underscoring that change.

Importantly, experts note that neither country wants a full-blown conflict, with President Donald Trump saying he prefers “peace” when it comes to Iran. But the possibility of war breaking out anyway shouldn’t be discounted, especially now that Iran’s leadership has sworn to avenge Suleimani. “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted Friday morning.

Which means US-Iran relations teeter on a knife edge, and it won’t take much more to knock them off. So to understand just how bad the situation could get, I asked eight current and former White House, Pentagon, and intelligence officials, as well as Middle East experts, last July about how a war between the US and Iran might play out.

The bottom line: It would be hell on earth. 

“This would be a violent convulsion similar to chaos of the Arab Spring inflicted on the region for years,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the Defense Department’s Iran team chief from 2009 to 2012, with the potential for it to get “so much worse than Iraq.”

When Trump fulfilled his promise to tear up the deal with Iran, it was going to make things worse — the only question is now much worse. And given Trump’s impulsivity and ineptitude, a lot of terrible scenarios remain on the table.

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