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Shortly after the world rolled into the year 2020, which was supposed to be a new energy-positivity thing, we suddenly seemed to be on the brink of World War III. And then, just as quickly, it all went away.

So what happened?

Act I. The Death of An Iraqi-American

It's important to remember this: in destabilized regions, people are wounded or killed in small and localized acts of violence fairly regularly, at least every few weeks. Most often these casualties are practically random, untraceable to any specific cause or group, and most are largely ignored on the larger scale of things. We hear about them on the news and forget in the next moment. But a government looking for an excuse to "respond" to something can simply pluck out one of these obscure incidences and pump it up as a reason to suddenly act. And Donald Trump certainly had a good excuse to enact a grand distraction, perched as he was in that moment between having been impeached by the US House of Representatives, and awaiting trial in the US Senate.

In this instance, the gambit all started with the death of Nawres Waleed Hamid.

An Iraqi-born American contractor, Hamid was killed in violence fairly typical of the region. This was, essentially, the setup. The US puts people in hazardous places, and then selectively reacts indignantly when hazards happen. This, too, is somewhat interesting in itself, because Hamid is not somebody whom the typical Trump supporter would even deem an "American." Hamid was after all born in Iraq -- had Trump's policies been in effect earlier he would have barred him from entering the US altogether -- and had only become naturalized as a US citizen in the late 2010s. Dark-eyed and brown-skinned, Hamid was a practicing Muslim with Arabic as his first language (enabling his effective work as an interpreter for American forces in Iraq). But his death at this delicate political moment was something which could be seized upon.

Act II. Retaliation, and Protest

There is really no information that has been made known to anybody to assign blame for Hamid's death to any specific group. But the political situation being what it is, the USA responded to it by bombing three sites in Iraq and two in Syria, all asserted (without evidence) to be associated with Iranian-backed groups. Dozens of supposed "militants" were killed. The Iraqi government, normally consulted well in advance of such operations, was given thirty minutes notice and objected strenuously, to no avail.

Naturally, the Iraqi people were riled up by this sudden and unexpected escalation, and staged a sizable protest at the US embassy in Baghdad, carrying out various acts of petty vandalism -- but not causing any actual injuries to persons. Certain Iraqi militia leaders asserted to be connected with Iran were on hand, and their presence was used to assert that Iran played any role in the embassy protest, though the protest was in its effects far more in the nature of a rowdy crowd of disgruntled guests trashing an Airbnb than it was any kind of coordinated attack.

Act III. Assassination

The response to the embassy trashing was equally disproportianal. The US sent a drone to drop a bomb, killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the long-serving figure in charge of all of Iran's military forces, whose equivalent in the US would most accurately be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In practice, the target here was a much more provocative target, as he'd been prominent in Iran for decades. An Iraqi politician, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the attack as well. Iran claimed Soleimani had actually been in Iraq to convey a peace plan -- itself a somewhat far-fetched, possibly manufactured in the aftermath of the fact claim.

Oddly, the US executive branch gave no notice to any officials in the legislative branch that this attack was taking place -- a violation of law requiring that certain heads of certain national security-related committees be informed of such things -- which Trump would later counter by insisting that Congressional Democrats on the committees could not be trusted and would leak the information. This doesn't quite explain why Republicans in Congress weren't told either (though apparently Trump did tell random civilians inhabiting his resort, Mar-a-Lago, at the time). Trump later asserted that Soleimani was planning imminent attacks against numerous US embassies, but when defense officials were called before the various committees to show their cards, Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike were astounded by the absence of evidence backing this claim. Of note, no embassy was alerted of any danger of attack, which would, if the claims were true, be a grave lapse. In any event, the attack was one which appeared to be tailor-made to force Iran to respond with some attack of its own, necessarily escalating tensions even further -- which is actually where things get interesting.

Act IV. Iran Plays Its Hand in Response

Iran's most visible response was military. It launched missiles at an expansive (and expensive) base housing US soldiers in Iraq. But, Iran gave the US advance warning, so those soldiers could be safely ensconced in the most secure parts of the base, while the missiles hit unoccupied parts of the base. At the same time, Iran did two other important things. They reportedly offered a bounty of $80,000,000 for the death of Donald Trump (which, apparently, still stands), and they threatened retaliation at locations outside the region while displaying a list of Trump properties around the world. Naturally, news reports of the latter threat immediately made some people skittish about being in those locations.

And this response, this measured missile attack calculated to avoid actually killing anybody combined with subtle personal threats against Donald Trump and his properties won Donald Trump's respect.

In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand that respect is a keystone of Trump's valuation process. You either have earned his respect and are on the same footing, or you have not and are thus loser (if you are an enemy) or at best as a toady. The ritual for earning Trump's respect is wholly agnostic to political beliefs or the status of the other person as a friend or a foe, populist or dictator. Right or wrong, it is entirely about impressing him with how you play your hand.

Act V. A Show of Respect

And how do we know that Iran's measured acts and threats in fact won Trump's respect? Because of Trump's change in tone. He immediately went from being entirely belligerent towards Iran to essentially becoming a rhetorical and deferential defender of Iran, as illustrated by two specific episodes immediately following.

The first of these was over a Ukrainian airliner departing Tehran errantly shot down by the Iranians that night, shortly after the missile strikes. Some Iranian air defense officer, personifying the country's nervous anticipation of a full-throated US retaliation, pulled the trigger too quickly to launch missiles when something showed up on his radar. 176 lives were snuffed out in an instant. Trump could easily have used that incident to ratchet tensions up further, claimed it as justification for further belligerence and bombing. Instead, he downplayed it entirely, brushing it off with the comment, "it's a rough neighborhood."

The second was Trump's response to information about what injuries did occur to US troops due to Iran's strike on the American base. Though no Americans died, it was reported that thirty-some (later updated to fifty-some) had traumatic brain injuries. Now, to be completely honest, this by itself sounds like something of a phonied-up statistic in its (lack of) context, because there is no claim of any other kind of injury, not a single sprained ankle or broken arm, nor any lacerations or palpitations or burns or breaks or bruises. Just thirty-some traumatic brain injuries. But still, here again Trump could have amplified the scenario due to this, but instead waved off these injuries as "headaches," thusly again essentially defending Iran even at the cost angering some in the US veteran community.

And so, before this engagement, Iran did not have Trump's respect. Now it does.

And because Iran earned Trump's respect, there is now some slight possibility for rapprochement. But don't hope too, too hard for it; even countries whose leaders have earned Trump's respect, like China (where Trump marveled at leader Xi Jinping's ability to get the legislature to throw out term limits and essentially make Xi President for life) find themselves at the brunt of Trump's ire when expedient. Political circumstances may again make it expedient for Trump to seek to provoke the distracting conflict of a world at war, and Iran remains a target high on the list for this contingency (though perhaps now somewhat below North Korea, whose leader overplayed his hand and for the moment appears to have lost Trump's respect).

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