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Why the US assassination of Iran general Qassem Soleimani is the riskiest decision of Donald Trump's presidency

Iranians have vented their anger with the US by burning flags on the streets. Credit: AP

The White House military order to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s powerful Quds force, may prove to be the most significant (and certainly the riskiest) decision of the Trump presidency.

At a stroke, it transforms a Washington-Tehran contest that was being waged by proxies, and often conducted in the shadows using cyber-warfare and CIA ops, into a direct conflict.

This is a very public American assassination of Iran’s second most powerful official.

President Trump was clearly proud of the move. Moments before a Pentagon statement, he simply tweeted an image of an American flag, with no text.

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The question of course is how Tehran responds. With Iranian influence stretching in a crescent from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, via Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it has multiple options. We cannot know which choice it will make.

The Iranians could opt to attack a US ally, like Israel or Saudi Arabia, similar to the previous missile strike on a Saudi oil facility.

Or it could close the Strait of Hormuz by releasing mines into the critical waterway; or give the green light to a team of operatives to conduct a counter-assassination.

The other possibility would be the riskiest of all - a direct attack on US forces in the Middle East.

But that would likely trigger a rapidly-escalating war that could prove extraordinarily unpredictable.

Cynics have speculated Donald Trump could try to divert attention away from his impeachment. Credit: AP

Cynics in Washington always suggested that impeachment would also bring a giant White House-generated foreign policy distraction.

We now have that exact moment: the Senate convening today for the first time in 2020 and a dramatic escalation in the tensions with Iran.

This crisis looks especially unpredictable, even by Middle East standards.

In many ways it is the perfect storm: a presidential election year; an impeachment month; Europe and the US holding vastly divergent views on how to handle Iran; and a regime in Tehran that feels endangered by protests and strangled by sanctions.