It is hard to discern how Trump, who ordered the assassination personally, thinks this will play out. On New Year’s Eve, he told reporters that he wanted peace with Iran. Just two days later, did he think that killing Iran’s top military commander was somehow not an act of war? If he grasped that it was, did he—does he—believe that the blow would bring the regime to its knees or rouse the Iranian people to mount a revolution? (His former national security adviser, John Bolton, expressed that hope shortly after the killing.) Many Iranians, especially in the cities, despise the mullahs in charge of their government, as shown by the massive protests that have swept the country in recent months, but they despise foreign intruders even more. The ghost of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister who was overthrown in a joint American-British coup in 1953, still haunts the Iranian landscape, animating every crisis since.
Trump also said, in his New Year’s Eve comments, that if a war with Iran did erupt, it “would go very quickly.” That is also what Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, blithely predicted about the war in Iraq. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said a few months before the invasion. It is worth noting that Iran is three times larger than Iraq, with nearly three times the population.
The attack is also certain to alienate the government of Iraq, which would be a necessary ally in a war with Iran.