No one should mourn the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
This was the man responsible, directly and indirectly, for the death of hundreds of U.S. soldiers, as well as much of the carnage in Syria, the brutal repression of Iranian protesters in 1999 and 2009 and many more crimes.
But the verdict is out as to whether the White House has any strategy to deal with the repercussions of killing Iran’s second-most powerful leader, who combined the powers of top military commander, intelligence chief and shadow foreign minister.
Eliminating this general is the equivalent of declaring open war on Tehran. A president who has insisted he wants to quit the Middle East is now sending thousands of more troops there to guard against Iranian retaliation. “Certainly, it’s a good thing Soleimani is dead,” says Ryan Crocker, the legendary former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who had to deal with Soleimani’s wiles in the early 2000s. “But at what cost?”
Here are my early thoughts about costs and possible benefits of Soleimani’s death.
Was the killing justified? “Absolutely, no question,” says Crocker. Soleimani was the military commander who devised and controlled virtually all of Iran’s imperial adventures in the Middle East from Lebanon (with ally Hezbollah) to Gaza to Yemen. In Syria, the general assembled Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, plus Hezbollah fighters, that kept Bashar al-Assad in power, backed up by criminal Russian airstrikes against Syrian civilians.
And Soleimani was the most powerful man in Iraq. As commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, he organized Shiite militias to fight the Americans in the wake of the 2003 invasion and provided them with lethal, armor-piercing IEDs that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. These militias are now more powerful than the Iraqi army.
Was the killing wise? Having spent much time in Iraq when U.S. soldiers were being blown to bits, I have to cheer. And keep in mind that Soleimani’s Quds Force has been helping to crush brave young Iraqi protesters on Baghdad’s streets who are calling for an end to Iranian “occupation” of their country (although they also want U.S. forces out of Iraq).
But there are reasons that neither the United States nor Israel took the general out during the Bush or Obama years: the ongoing Iraq war, the hope for an Iran nuclear deal — and the fact that Soleimani’s militias were crucial in defeating ISIS.
Most of all, there was a reluctance to enter open war with Iran.
With its capability of waging asymmetrical warfare militias, cyber assets and naval presence in the Gulf, Tehran can destabilize the entire Mideast. Even President Trump backed off responding with force when the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone and badly damaged a Saudi refinery.
Now all that has changed, supposedly because one U.S. contractor was killed by Iranian-backed militias — and because more Iranian attacks were likely. Is this just Trump seizing a target of opportunity? Was this earth-shaking event triggered with an eye to Fox News and 2020 elections?
What does Trump want to achieve? One moment, Trump says he wants to negotiate with top Iranian leaders; the next, Mike Pompeo effectively calls for regime change.
Does Trump believe killing Soleimani will precipitate a popular uprising against the ayatollahs? This is a pipe dream. Although many urban Iranian liberals will cheer the general’s death, Soleimani remains a hero to most Iranians because of his military bravery in the Iran-Iraq war, in defeating ISIS in Iraq and in protecting Shiite shrines in Syria and Iraq.
A reasonable midterm goal would be to block Iran from stirring more trouble in the region – and the loss of Soleimani’s talents will seriously hurt Tehran’s imperial ambitions. But an erratic Trump is famously resistant to experts who could help him devise ways to counter Iran’s efforts at revenge. And if the regime holds on, what then?
What are the likely costs of the assassination? The most immediate cost will likely be in Iraq. Shiite legislators will probably vote to remove the 5,000 U.S. troops now based in their country. Trump may not care.
Reminder: When Barack Obama removed the last troops from Iraq in 2011, Iraqi forces proved incapable of halting ISIS’s rise. Iraqi officials tell me their greatest fear is that, if U.S. forces leave, Iran will take full control of Iraq. Soleimani would be smiling.
Beyond Iraq, Tehran’s possible asymmetric responses are many: a return to 20% enrichment of uranium, which opens the path to a bomb; more attacks on Gulf refineries or shipping, driving oil prices up; terror attacks against Israel, or Americans in the Mideast, by proxies; a high-level revenge killing of a U.S. official if the opportunity occurs. The list is endless.
The only thing that is certain is this: Contrary to Pompeo’s claim, in the short term, Americans in the region aren’t safer after the general’s death. How high the long-term costs depends on whether Trump — contrary to his history — has any realistic goals in mind for waging open warfare with Iran.