The Trump administration's assassination of charismatic Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani on Friday in Baghdad was probably the most provocative military action the US could have taken against Iran - short of conducting airstrikes on Iran itself.
While the US has been long on justification for the Reaper drone strike that killed Soleimani, claiming he posed an imminent threat to US personnel in the Middle East, it was also in President Trump's political interest in 2020 to provoke a limited conflict with Iran - preferably one initiated by Iran.
Any military action by Iran against US forces in the Middle East would undoubtedly generate an overwhelming US military response that would badly damage Iran's military capability. This scenario could be expected to bolster Trump's re-election prospects. Even the perception of a heightened external threat can play well for an incumbent leader coming up for re-election.
The Soleimani assassination was also probably intended to encourage America's allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Israel) and send a strong message to those who have obstructed the US (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey) that it has the capability to conduct assassination attacks on leaders who oppose American interests.
Anyone who has visited Iran will know that Soleimani was the most revered and admired military figure there, with iconic war hero status. His picture is everywhere, along with pictures of local martyrs from the 1980-88 war with Iraq (that war was initiated by Iraq with US backing and led to half a million Iranian deaths).
During the 1980-88 war, Soleimani was Iran's most successful military commander, rising while still in his 20s from company commander to commanding the 41st Division.
Since 1998, Soleimani has been the commander of Iran's Quds Force, a "special forces" unit specialising in unconventional warfare, military intelligence, and extraterritorial operations.
As Quds Force commander, Soleimani was able to support, train and direct local Shiite allies and militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to counter Sunni Islamic State and further Iranian interests. He was also a hands-on military commander who spent most of his time in the field and was well-respected by those under his command.
In April 2019, the Trump administration listed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (which includes the Quds Force) as a "foreign terrorist organization" to put more pressure on Iran. This was another reason given to justify killing Soleimani (none of the US's allies, other than Canada, lists the Quds Force as a terrorist organisation). Soleimani was, however, linked to Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah, whose External Security Organisation is listed by Australia as a terrorist organisation.
Soleimani was also the mastermind behind the very successful Iranian "arc of influence" strategy extending Iran's influence through Iraq to the Levant. In addition to his military influence, Soleimani was an important political figure who had ready access to national political leaders, like Russia's President Putin and Turkey's President Erdogan.
It is not clear from non-US assessments that Soleimani posed an imminent and growing threat to US government employees in Iraq - although he undoubtedly saw them as obstructing Iranian interests and shared the Iraqi desire for US forces to be withdrawn from Iraq.
The Iranian government will be under enormous popular pressure to revenge Soleimani. Its preferred short-term options would probably be something deniable - perhaps the assassination of a well-known American, or a devastating bombing of an American embassy.
What seems certain is that Soleimani's assassination will have unpredictable long-term regional consequences. Americans could end up paying a heavy price for what was likely an impetuous Trump decision made primarily for domestic political reasons.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.