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How Killing Soleimani Creates Danger—and Opportunity

It was a righteous strike. But an ominous one.
January 6, 2020
How Killing Soleimani Creates Danger—and Opportunity
Iranians gather around a vehicle carrying the coffins of slain major general Qassem Soleimani and others, in the northeastern city of Mashhad on January 5, 2020. (MEHDI JAHANGHIRI/IRAN'S FARS NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Hellfire missile that dispatched Qasem Soleimani had been a long time coming. At the direction of the American president, a drone strike outside the Baghdad airport last week killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander and another senior Iranian-linked figure in Baghdad, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander.

As Iran’s chief imperial strategist, Soleimani conceived and coordinated the clerical regime’s long-standing drive for hegemonic control of the Middle East. He served as the Islamic republic’s arm to a bevy of foreign surrogates and proxy groups, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad dynasty in Syria, and Iraq’s Shiite militias. The “shadow commander” was nothing short of a plenipotentiary of this Islamist imperium, and his demise will be greeted with elation by those living in societies ravaged by his holy foreign legion from Lebanon to Syria, Yemen to Iraq, and—yes, Ben Rhodes—even in Iran.

This action was a welcome and decisive blow struck against Iran’s foreign and defense establishment. Alas, its potential strategic windfall could be forfeited by crude and incompetent American statecraft in short order.

With Trump serving in the presidential chair, the contingency is not a remote one.

Recall that President Trump betrayed his ignorance of what the Quds Force even was during the presidential campaign, though after entering office he (or his more knowledgeable deputies) offered resistance to Iran’s predatory cause from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

In 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which had been negotiated by Barack Obama. He sought to turn the screws on the mullahs with punitive sanctions—albeit without investing much effort to gain support from our European allies. Still, oil exports have crashed from around 2.5 million barrels a day in 2017 to less than half a million barrels a day now. The Iranian rial has collapsed and many Iranians struggle to afford basic amenities. All of which has put the coffers of the revolutionary regime come under heavy strain, draining Iran’s war chest while simultaneously heightening economic distress and political unrest at home.

Because of this cumulative pressure, Iran’s expansionism has sharply increased its tempo and urgency in recent months. Last June, Iran attacked two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Soon after, it shot down a U.S. drone in international airspace. At the 11th hour Trump retracted his own order for military retaliation against Iran, settling for more sanctions (as well as cyber attacks). Last September a drone fleet launched by Iranian proxies in Yemen devastated the Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. Again, Trump exercised restraint.

Then on December 27, the Ktaib Hezbollah militia launched rockets at an Iraqi base near Kirkuk. The attack left an American contractor dead, along with a handful of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers wounded. The American response was swift. Within 48 hours, F-15s fired on five Kataib Hezbollah bases across Iraq and Syria. At least 25 of its militiamen were killed. Kataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed paramilitary groups responded by laying siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, failing to breach its interior but managing to leave the perimeter grounds smoldering.

The administration judged Soleimani’s life a fair price to exact for this brazen violation of diplomatic protocol: The attack on a U.S. embassy is the equivalent of an attack on American soil.

And Soleimani was not just a high-ranking officer, but also a charismatic leader with a record of unchecked barbarism. At the direction of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his shuttle diplomacy extended and entrenched Iran’s imperial frontiers by unleashing unfathomable human suffering. Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, it was under Soleimani’s guidance that Iran incited a Shiite insurgency to overwhelm the American project of midwifing a federal and secular democracy in Mesopotamia. His weapon of choice was the roadside bomb—especially the “explosively formed penetrator”—which wreaked havoc on military convoys, killing at least 603 U.S. soldiers (roughly one in every six American combat fatalities in this theater), and maimed hundreds more, according to the Pentagon.

Soleimani presided over a vast slaughter in Syria by bolstering Assad’s near-genocidal campaign to quash the democratic rebellion that broke out in 2011. With the help of Soleimani’s Shiite auxiliary militias, Assad’s armed forces succeeded in turning that struggle into a sectarian bloodbath that helped spawn the Islamic caliphate and constitutes this century’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe. After his travel ban was lifted by the Obama administration pursuant to the JPOA, Soleimani turned up in Moscow to coordinate Iranian and Russian efforts to crush the rebellion and rescue their blood-stained client regime in Damascus.

In Yemen, the Quds Force has equipped Houthi rebels with enough firepower to turn that country (along with the indiscriminate violence employed by the Saudi-led coalition) into a charnel house. And he shored up Hezbollah to such a degree that even facing a crippling economic crisis, Lebanon’s multi-sectarian government conspires to hold the country hostage to the whim of the Party of God.

In 2006, Soleimani helped organize Hezbollah’s war against Israel, and has since assembled a frightful arsenal of missiles in southern Lebanon to molest the Jewish state. More recently, Soleimani proved indispensable in suppressing people’s revolts against the Islamic revolutionary regime from Baghdad to Tehran.

The Trump administration claims it took action to thwart imminent attacks that Soleimani was planning against U.S. diplomats and troops in the Middle East—and also to punish the attacks he had recently orchestrated on coalition bases in Iraq. Some senior government officials have disputed the former claim, but the gravamen of the case against the strike concerns the ramifications of killing the man whose position in Iran was second only to that of the supreme leader.

Making sense of whether or not killing Soleimani was wise requires that we keep a number of thoughts in our heads at once, many of which are in tension with one another.

The first is what we just covered: Soleimani was a high-value target who has spent decades killing American soldiers, harming American interests, and organizing the killing of civilians en masse as well as the defense of dictatorships across the region.

The second is that the character, intelligence, and stability of Donald Trump creates substantial doubt at home and abroad about the effectiveness and trustworthiness of the American commander-in-chief.

It is not a matter of speculation that Trump is intemperate, flippant, and mendacious. These characteristics can sometimes be useful if not laudable in domestic politics. When it comes to grave matters of national honor and security, they are liabilities. America’s promises and threats are only as effective as they are perceived to be by both our allies and adversaries, and Trump’s lack of aptitude for strategic deliberation diminishes respect for American power and with it the potential of U.S. global leadership.

These are not criticisms—just facts. And they give rise to a number of important questions:

  • What contingency plans have been made to deter Iran from initiating further hostilities, or to mitigate the consequences of such brigandage?
  • If Tehran carries out reprisals, which allies will follow where the United States chooses to lead?
  • What is the end-game in the event of further escalation by Iran?

But at the same time, we should appreciate the cost of having done nothing. By continuing to forswear military action in the face of wanton Iranian aggression, American deterrence would have been relinquished—thereby encouraging still more Iranian aggression.

The prospect of Trump barking commands, with no larger strategic vision, in an escalating spiral of conflict against a powerful and determined adversary, leaves much to be desired. But then, so is the prospect of Trump sitting idly by as Iran advanced toward its object of regional domination, gaining control of a choke point of the world economy, and subverting the foundations of liberal order.

To those who say that the targeted killing of Soleimani was an act of war, the correct response is to concede the point. As the Atlantic’s Andrew Exum points out: “This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.” But then, a permanent war between the United States and the Islamic republic is well and truly underway, and it is unclear how it helps the American interest if Iran is the only party waging it. Whether or not it remains a hot war, or returns to the shadows is now the choice of Iran’s supreme leader and his clerical oligarchs.

To those who question what legal authority equips the president to carry out such a strike in Iraq, the correct answer is the Constitution of the United States. Article II of that document vests the executive with the discretion to determine what is required for the defense of the nation, and to discharge that duty the president’s power is plenary.

To those who question what legal authority equips the United States to carry out a targeted killing against an Iranian combatant during a strike in Iraq without a declared state of war, the correct answer is that there is no court in the world for men like Qasem Soleimani. War, not law, is the continuation of politics by other means. It is nothing more than sentimentality to expect to achieve peace with a messianic regime that breaches every known international law in its tireless pursuit of apocalyptic weaponry and international terrorism.

And if the choice is full-bore, total war, or limited war, the latter is obviously preferable. But we should be clear-eyed in understanding that you cannot prosecute an effective, limited war against Iran without causing casualties.

Deterrence is a precious asset and the United States has squandered much of it since the birth of the Islamic republic.

Donald Trump is not the ideal leader to restore it and the dangers involved in him trying to do so are obvious and considerable. In his short time on the world stage, he has frittered away American credibility time and again: by splintering NATO, abandoning Kurdish partners in Syria, and generally signaling the end of Pax Americana.

But to repeat, there is also danger involved in Trump not seeking to restore deterrence. The profusion of dangers which create situations in which there are no good options, only less-bad ones, is why Americans normally elect commanders-in-chief who are, at a minimum, fit for the duties of the office.

By making the decision to rid the world of Soleimani and take off the gloves against his transnational Shia expeditionary force, the Trump administration has shut the door on Obama’s policy of accommodation toward the Islamic republic. But that doesn’t mean a policy of strength and prudence will supplant it. The illusions and abdications that have long shaped U.S. policy toward Iran have ignored or overlooked the ayatollahs’ flagrant scorn for international citizenship. And as U.S. policy entertains a more muscular posture in confronting this outlaw regime, it will not be without other dangerous forms of illusion and abdication.

We should anticipate a prolonged period of kinetic hostility from Iran, even more dangerous and acute than the enmity that has always been the rasion d’être of that regime. Washington should take precautions and coordinate with allies to build and sustain vigilance against Iranian subversion and force—ensuring the fortification of military outposts, hardening defenses against cyber attacks, providing the safety of expatriates in the region, guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, establishing security for the Saudi petroleum industry, assuring quiet along Israel’s borders, and—not least—offering energetic support for the Iranian opposition.

Above all, America’s leaders should not lose sight of the strategic essence of this contest: The regime in Tehran is incompatible with, and adversarial to, any civilized order in the Middle East. Given its theocratic character (Shiite absolutism combined with the power of a sovereign state, Ayatollah Khomeini’s innovation of the velayat-e Faqih) and its revolutionary mission abroad, the Islamic republic in its current form simply cannot evolve into a law-abiding member of the international community.

One non-trivial cause for comfort in this struggle is that the Iranian subjects of the Islamic republic—as well as the Arab subjects of its imperial enterprise—will also be better off after the mullahs lose their grip on power.

This alignment of interests between America and the actual people of the region is a significant asset for U.S. foreign policy. But seizing this opportunity will demand imagination and strategic foresight of a sort that is simply beyond the capacity of this primitive presidency.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.