HERE’S a question to ponder over. Might perhaps Donald Trump have just played the most effective foreign policy hand of his presidency?

I say Trump cautiously of course, for who knows for certain those that were behind the push for assassinating Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, even if the US Commander in Chief ultimately signed off on the order.

It’s no secret after all that the hawks within the Trump administration have long been gunning for Soleimani and “teaching” the Iranians a “lesson” they would never forget.

But putting to one side for a moment the obvious legal concerns over Soleimani’s killing, when it’s viewed through the cold calculating lens of who the winners and losers of this no-quarter battle have been, Washington to date appears to have come out on top.

The National: Qassem Soleimani

Put quite bluntly, if the Americans had thought for a moment that a few wayward Iranian missiles and no US casualties was the only price to pay for the killing of such a pivotal operator as Soleimani then they would have rid themselves of the Quds Force leader long ago.

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For years the rules by which this so-called “shadow war” between the US and Iran were played, meant that neither side targeted each other’s leaders. It just wasn’t done and certainly not at the level Soleimani represented. But then Trump, if indeed he was the driving force behind the drone strike that killed the Iranian leader, doesn’t play by “normal” rules.

Whatever the murky decision-making behind the killing, Trump wilfully or unwittingly has effectively called Tehran’s bluff, leaving the Iranians perplexed as to the punitive level of retaliation they needed to deliver.

For while the Iranian regime has described its missile attacks on the US airbases in Iraq these past days as a “proportionate” response to Soleimani’s killing, they are anything but.

This is not to say, of course, that things are all done and dusted and a line drawn under the stand-off. Even as I write I’m conscious that by the time this column goes to press things on the ground could have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Questions and uncertainties over the crisis remain – big questions and uncertainties.

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In the days, weeks and months ahead, Tehran might yet still respond in kind using its renowned and ruthless skills in asymmetric warfare and myriad regional Shi’ite militias at its disposal to suck these two historically implacable enemies back into a cycle of violence that could lead to a war of sorts.

I say of sorts because not for a moment do I believe either side is hell bent on all-out war. Iran for a start would lose out badly in such a conflict to vastly superior US weaponry and firepower.

For its part, the White House, keen as it is to give Iran a bloody nose, remains wary of being drawn into a full-blown conflict alongside which its misguided and ill-fated military invasion of Iraq back in 2003 would pale. But even if both sides appear for now to be backing off, the capacity in the region for miscalculation remains as prevalent as ever.

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If forced to talk of winners and losers in tactical terms over this crisis, then perhaps both Trump and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can both claim to be victors. That certainly is how both leaders are selling it at home.

Khamenei might insist that Iran’s missile attacks were nothing more than a “slap” in the face of America and talk tough about other further retaliatory measures, but he will also be breathing a sigh of relief that Washington seems happy with Tehran’s face-saving response.

Trump for his part is certain to make a big play of how he “took out” Soleimani in the same way as he did after the US Special Forces operation that killed Daesh leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi last October.

The egotist that Trump is has always been obsessed with going one better on his predecessor Barack Obama’s removal of Osama bin Laden from the ranks of the world’s leading Islamist-inspired terrorists.

Where Trump must now be careful, though, is in not continuing to goad or punish Iran for meddling in other countries while the US does precisely that alongside its ally Saudi Arabia. That will not be easy for Trump, it must be said, has never been good at knowing when to ease off when he finds himself in the driving seat.

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As a US presidential election campaign intensifies, we will doubtless never hear the end of Trump’s slayer of terrorists rhetoric and hyperbole. In an editorial on Wednesday the Washington Post cited a recent Reuters-Ipsos poll insisting that Trump’s war mongering with Iran won’t prove to be a political winner. At least 54% of adults disapprove of Trump’s handling of Iran, up nine points from a poll in mid-December, the newspaper pointed out.

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Much as I personally might welcome such evident disapproval of the US president, I’m less convinced that Trump’s handling of the crisis has done him the damage some claim.

Killing Soleimani was a momentous foreign policy gamble on his behalf and should things stay as they are without further escalation between the US and Iran, then it seems almost inevitable that Trump stands to reap some domestic political benefit.

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That said, US foreign policy overall in the Middle East continues to be both bellicose and chaotic. Trump remains a president who promises to end “forever wars” and bring the troops home but who has deployed 18,000 more troops since his “maximum pressure” campaign began in 2019.

To talk of winners and losers in terms of this volatile crisis is, ultimately, to miss the point, for relations between Tehran and Washington are now as dire as they have been for decades.

If Trump and Khamenei can claim to be winners, then the real losers are the art of diplomacy and long-suffering people of Iraq. Once again Iraqis have found themselves caught in the crossfire and their land sadly may yet prove to be the central battlefield all over again.