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Iran escalation ends in tragedy and outrage

Riot police and demonstrators on Saturday near Tehran's Amir Kabir University. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Twelve days in which war between the U.S. and Iran seemed to loom ever closer began and ended with apparent Iranian mistakes.

The big picture: Iran is under growing pressure at home and abroad, while President Trump appears emboldened. But Trump is also facing criticism in Washington for failing to substantiate claims of an "imminent" threat, and overseas for his role in driving the escalation.

The first mistake: The escalation began on Dec. 27 when rockets fired by an Iran-backed militia killed a U.S. contractor, Nawres Waleed Hamid.

  • U.S. intelligence officials believe the attack was intended to "keep the pressure on" rather than escalate tensions with the U.S., and Hamid was killed "by unlucky chance," per the NY Times.
  • Then came the American retaliation, which left 25 dead, and the chaotic scenes at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which infuriated Trump.

Trump's gamble: Cham Wings Airlines Flight 6Q501 landed in Baghdad at 12:36am local time on the morning of Jan. 3. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and his entourage were the first passengers to depart, per NYT.

  • At 12:47am, two American Reaper drones that had been trailing Soleimani unleashed the missiles that killed him and nine others.

The second mistake: Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 began its ascent out of Tehran at 6:12am on Jan. 8, carrying 176 passengers and crew.

  • Iran was bracing for potential American retaliation to its ballistic missile strikes on Iraqi military bases, which began four hours earlier.
  • Just two minutes after takeoff, the plane was blown from the sky. An Iranian commander later said it was mistaken for a cruise missile.
  • The tragedy coincidentally occurred almost at the exact moment President Trump declared "all is well" because Iran's strikes in Iraq had resulted in no American casualties.
  • After three days of denials, Iran admitted Saturday that it shot down the plane. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cited “human error at time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism.”

Between the lines: "The irony is that this unpredictable and unplanned event might end up having more serious implications for the Iranian regime than countless deliberate U.S. attempts to destabilize it," Rob Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group and a former Obama adviser, tells Axios.

  • Tehran is facing outrage abroad and pressure at home after three days of protests, which appear motivated as much by the cover-up as by the disaster.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to blame both sides today, telling Global News Canada that the 57 Canadians killed in the crash would be "home with their families" if not for U.S.-Iran tensions and "escalation in the region."
  • Trump's claim that Soleimani was planning attacks on four embassies also seemed to crumble on Sunday when Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS he'd seen no such intelligence.
  • Nevertheless Trump, who has tweeted in support of the Iranian protestors, appears to consider himself the winner of this high-stakes showdown.

What to watch: "President Trump's approach to foreign policy is self-reinforcing: If he undertakes unconventional action (like moving the embassy to Jerusalem or killing Soleimani) and the anticipated blowback does not occur, he is emboldened to take more, bolder and riskier moves," Malley says.

  • "Each time this happens, his world view is further validated and his sense that he can get away with almost anything is bolstered."
  • "That approach will work until it doesn't — until his decisions trigger an aggressive reaction that proves costly to the U.S."

Go deeper: Pompeo declines to appear for testimony on Soleimani airstrike