The wreckage of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s vehicle was still cooling on a Baghdad access road Friday when the recriminations against President Donald Trump’s assassination of Iran’s powerful Quds Force leader began.
Foremost among them: The U.S. has triggered Iran to stage attacks on America’s troops, embassies, friends and infrastructure in the Middle East and around the world. As if Iran wasn’t already.
The critique is based on the serious miscalculation that the U.S. had little to gain by taking out Soleimani and that the consequences would be worse than what he and the regime were already doing. The reality is the opposite, and the public should welcome the fact that their leaders are taking bolder action to protect them from Iranian mayhem.
Whether most Americans knew it or not, Soleimani was already waging a shadow war with the West and its regional partners. At his direction, Iran built and supplied highly sophisticated explosive devices to militias targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, killing at least 500 American service members, wounding many more, and making up nearly 20 percent of combat deaths in the country in the early years of the war. When the Pentagon noted after his death that Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq” it was easy to believe. He’d already done it.
Whatever danger Soleimani’s death might bring, danger was already present in lethal doses, and not just for Americans. Soleimani intervened to salvage the Syrian civil warfor President Bashar al-Assad, organizing more than 100,000 fighters to prop up the crumbling, corrupt regime and planning the infamous campaign to retake the city of Aleppo from Syrian rebels in 2016. That seige redefined carnagein the modern era, while the civil war overall sent thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe.
Soleimani’s handiwork is also believed to include his decades-long arming of terrorist groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis and militants in Gaza. His subordinates are believed to be behind an attempt to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington in 2011. The 2019 attacks on Saudi oil refineries are widely believed to be the work of Iran; as was the New Year’s Eve attack on America’s embassy in Iraq last week.
It’s counterintuitive for a cautious political class, but America’s assassination of a key Iranian military plotter improves the long-term U.S. position in the Middle East: It gravely weakens a radical revolutionary regime that has, for years, killed American troops and those of our allies and partners, undermined America’s friends throughout the region, and pursued nuclear weapons despite signing a 2015 deal promising not to, thereby effectively taking advantage of the West’s good-faith diplomatic efforts.
Soleimani was Iran’s indispensable man: a ruthless, soldier-spymaster who built, funded, armed and nurtured a murderous international terror network to compensate for Iran’s conventional military weakness. When the dust settles, Iran will still be weak in conventional military strength — but now without its most capable grand strategist, the lynchpin in a sprawling Iranian web of violence and subterfuge. Yet Iran will remain dependent on the strategic framework Soleimani built, like an NFL team starting the season with the playbook of a legendary coach it has suddenly lost.
And while many media analysts questioned the strike because of its timing, suggesting it was an arbitrary attack since the bulk of Soleimani’s terror activity took place in the early 2000s, in fact it’s an apt moment. His killing comes at a terrible time for the regime, as Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour observes: Tehran’s already tottering regime is fighting multiple proxy wars, facing massive unrest at home and reeling economically from the American-led, international “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions.
As for the refrain that Soleimani’s killing actually helps Iran by unifying its public and distracting from these issues, Iranian authorities are certainly doing all they can to make it look that way. But the idea that he was universally beloved is a farce. Further, Iran’s above-mentioned weaknesses are structural, long-term issues. They will compound over time; fervor for Soleimani will not.
As well, since Soleimani sat at the center of his proxy network, the spokes that led to him do not necessarily lead to each other. Leadership transitions are no less complicated in fueling Middle Eastern chaos than in business, where half of them fail. Personal rivalries, religious tensions and ethnic frictions within and among proxies will add to Tehran’s burdens.
While Soleimani’s death is a strategic blow to Iran, the threats have not been eliminated with him. The U.S. should expect Iranian retaliatory action through its proxies -- deniable, but clearly at Tehran’s behest. Its most famous proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah has already pledged violence against U.S. servicemembers. No one doubts it has Iran’s blessing.
That’s why all-out war is unlikely. The whole point of Iran’s asymmetric, plausible deniability approach to warfare is to ensure it can respond while still maintaining regime survival. Getting into a conventional fight with the U.S. — as would happen if it took more aggressive, identifiable action — threatens that end. As well, Iran’s few remaining partners, Russia and China, have shown no eagerness to help the regime since America’s strike (another benefit of the assassination).
This makes it all the more important for the United States to now bring every regional partner on board — quickly —since they will be critical to intercepting and mitigating the dangers from proxies and Iran itself.
Unfortunately, the administration missed an opportunity to build trust and to prepare partners inside the region and out, many of whom despised Soleimani, by surprising them with a decision of this magnitude. Now, the U.S. is open to charges of unilateralism, recklessness and cowboy adventurism, even from our friends.
But while America’s abrupt decision to more directly confront Iran could have been handled with better diplomatic coordination and finesse, that doesn’t mean the operation should be dismissed as reckless and arbitrary.
Ignoring Soleimani and permitting his increasingly brazen and dangerous activity was the greater risk. Because, as is often the case in international security, there’s more to this than just Iran. Other nations, notably Russia, also use proxies. They watch carefully to see how America reacts to increasingly bold transgressions.
Clearly, December’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq (seen as incited by Soleimani) and the killing of an American contractor was the limit. It’s a limit that should have been set long ago. But better late than never. Killing Soleimani puts on notice other nations who might be considering doing as he has done. Put another way, the message has been sent that those who use the sword perish by the sword.
It is a sad reality that some in this world respond only to power. Qassem Soleimani was one of them. There comes a point in dealing with those like him when words fail and become worse than foolish. Missiles are then necessary.
- Bill Rivers was a speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon from 2017-19. A former Truman Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in Virginia.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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