As your news feed can no doubt tell you, Qassem Soleimani, Major-General of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in an air strike on the Baghdad International airport at the direction of President Trump on January 3rd. This brief is not interested in the event itself, but in the justification for and the potential fallout surrounding the killing.
In order to understand the potential impact of the air strike, we must first look at the man at the center of it all: Qassem Soleimani. He was not a terrorist leader of the same ilk as Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Soleimani was one of the foremost public figures in Iran, perhaps even the most admired and well-liked official in a regime that was and continues to lack in public support. Soleimani had commanded forces in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980, for which he gained widespread acclaim and was later hailed as a national hero. He would eventually rise through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard to command the Quds Force, an elite branch responsible for overseas clandestine operations such as sabotage, terror attacks, and equipping militias that act as Iran’s proxy forces in regional power struggles. Due to his popularity, distinguished military service, and command of the Quds Force, Soleimani became the mouthpiece for Iran’s expansionist aspirations in the Middle East. He reported directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and controlled a network of over 10,000 troops that stretched across international borders. He was not and should not be seen as equivalent to other terrorists that the U.S. has killed in the past. This would be both a falsehood and utterly disregard Soleimani’s importance and power.
Turning to Iran itself, it has been steadily increasing its regional control, taking advantage of the power vacuum that was created by the U.S.’s toppling of the Hussein regime and then largely abandoned by the slow U.S. withdrawal following the contracted occupation of Iraq. Iran also capitalized on the supplementary destabilization of the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, with much of the Middle East dissolving into sectarian Sunni versus Shi’a conflicts as state identities collapsed.
The Trump administration has been progressively re-instituting and increasing economic sanctions upon Iran following the administration’s refusal to abide by the Obama-era nuclear deal, with the hope being that Iran would be forced to rejoin the negotiation table on the Trump administration’s terms. Despite Trump’s tough talk on Iran, he has been largely reluctant to resort to military means despite Iran progressively pushing the envelope. Iran has attacked oil tankers, shot down a U.S. drone, and bombed Saudi oil facilities. However, Trump largely ignored these provocations outside of threats; only responding with force when an Iranian-backed militia killed a U.S. contractor at an Iraqi military base in December. In both this case and the case of Soleimani, Trump retaliated using air strikes. This appears to be his punitive tool of choice, and it would seem that outside of the death of Americans, he is unwilling to react militarily against Iran. Punishment appears to be his driver, not defense or offense.
In terms of U.S. national interest, it is good that Soleimani is dead. His Quds Force provided Iraqis with bomb-making equipment and training during the Iraq War, along with funding and arming militias that attacked American troops and diplomats. The air strike was lauded by regional American allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who view Iran as a rising and hostile regional power. Russia denounced the air strike, but this is to be expected, as it approves of Iran’s regional aspirations that disrupt American influence in the Middle East.
The justification for the air strike was to deter Iranian attacks upon Americans, particularly U.S. embassies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the administration received evidence of pending Iranian strikes, with Soleimani having developed plots to target American diplomats and military forces in Iraq and the region. Ayatollah Khamenei has promised reprisals for the killing of Soleimani, and cyber and terrorist attacks are anticipated against American national interests and allies. The U.S. Iraqi embassy has urged all Americans to leave Iraq and 3,500 troops have been deployed to the Middle East. The supposed outcome of deterring Iranian aggression has not taken place. In fact, assassinating an enemy politician is not a typical form of deterrence. Usually one would expect a threat. Putting this aside, it would appear that neither the Trump administration nor the world believes the claim that Soleimani’s death will discourage Iranian attacks.
There are also questions of whether Trump ordered the strike to distract from or increase his backing for the impending Senate impeachment trial. It was said by intelligence officials informed of the strike that the provided data on Soleimani’s movements was imperfect at best. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that he had not been given any specific evidence that Iran was planning to attack four U.S. embassies as Trump claimed. Even Republican Senator Mike Lee said that many of those Republican congressmen given access to justification for the strike were concerned about the reliability of the evidence provided and were not given specific details outside of the assertion that attacks upon U.S. embassies were imminent. Trump also reportedly told allies that he was under pressure from key Republican senators to somehow take care of Soleimani. Vice President Pence further contradicted the official story of imminent threats to U.S. embassies by opening a Trump rally in Toledo with the statement that as soon as the U.S. contractor was killed in the Iraqi rocket strike, that the Trump administration had decided to retaliate. All of these statements would suggest that Soleimani’s killing was not an act of deterrence nor was it based upon credible evidence of future attacks. It was at best a political calculation, and at worst a gamble by a desperate president.
Before Soleimani’s assassination, Iran’s influence in Iraq was under attack and the Iranian regime itself was under pressure at home. In early December, Iraqis were protesting and setting fire to the Iranian consulate in Najaf and calling for Iran to be expelled from the country. In November, Iran was rocked by a series of wide-spread anti-government protests and rioting that developed into calls for the Ayatollah’s resignation and against regime corruption. It seemed that before the strike the U.S. had a rare opportunity to capitalize upon demands for a reduction in Iranian influence and an Iranian population that desired change. As you read this brief, there is domestic backlash in Iran against the regime and calls for the Ayatollah to step down due to the downing of a Ukrainian Boeing civilian aircraft. This is not the Iran of the late 1970s. It would appear that young Iranians and many others are not pleased with the regime and are demanding coherent change.
In conclusion, Trump has gambled military losses, regional stability, terrorism, and national interests for political interest. The Iranian regime is unpopular. Iraqis were calling for resistance against Iranian influence. Soleimani’s death was not viewed as deterrence. Iraqi popular opinion has turned against the U.S. Evidence of justification was limited. All of these factors should have been considered or should further illustrate that the Trump administration is neither effective nor prudent when it comes to foreign policy. In addition, last Tuesday, Iran launched a missile strike upon an Iraqi military base known to house U.S. troops, but no Americans were present. It would appear that although Iran is attempting to flex its muscles and demonstrate capacity, it is altogether unwilling to commit to war, as is the U.S. The supposed showdown could be and is looking like nothing but hot air, but this does not excuse the actions of the Trump administration. As said before, it was gamble that may be paying off, but a gamble nonetheless that was expected to and could still have staggering ramifications.
- The Organization for World Peace – pushes for diplomatic and non-combative means to solving international issues.
- The Organization of Iranian American Communities – fighting for the promotion of human rights and democratic freedoms for the Iranian people.
- National Iranian American Council – strives to give Iranian Americans a greater voice and promote further understanding and community connections between Americans and Iranians.
Photo by Hasan Almasi