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, 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 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.
And Soleimani was a virtual overlord in Iraq, using his power to harm Americans -- and Iraqis. 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 same Shiite militias, with Soleimani’s blessing, have 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).
Was the killing wise? That’s entirely another story. 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, its proxy militias, cyber assets, and naval presence in the Gulf, Tehran can destabilize the entire Mideast. That’s probably why 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, because a U.S. contractor was killed by Iranian-backed militias, who also attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad -- and because more Iranian attacks were supposedly imminent.
Yes, some pushback was necessary to the militia attacks, but this was seismic. Was this just the president obfuscating impeachment and revving up his base for 2020? How can anyone trust Trump?
What is Trump’s goal regarding Iran? Trump says he wants to negotiate with top Iranian leaders; but his policies are clearly aimed at regime change. Where does the assassination of Soleimani fit in?
Does Trump believe killing the general will spur a popular uprising against the ayatollahs? This is a pipe dream. Urban Iranian liberals may cheer the general’s death, but Soleimani remains a hero to most Iranians because of his military bravery in the Iran-Iraq war and in defeating ISIS in Iraq.
So assume the regime will remain. And that the killing will end any slim prospects for renewing nuclear talks with Tehran. I seriously doubt that the ayatollahs want an all-out conflict. But can an ill-informed, erratic president avoid a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge whose outcome no one can foresee?
What are the likely costs of the assassination? The most immediate cost will likely be in Iraq. Prodded by Iran, 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. Moreover, the exit of U.S. forces would remove the principal bulwark against Iranian domination of Iraq -- a huge victory for Tehran, which will cement its clout in Syria and Lebanon and threaten Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Beyond Iraq, Tehran’s possible responses are endless: 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 by proxies against Israel, or Americans in the region; cyberattacks; a high-level revenge killing of a senior U.S. official. What then?
The only thing certain is this: Contrary to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim, Soleimani’s death hasn’t made Americans safer in the short term (the State Department has warned all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq). How high the long-term costs are depends on whether Trump – by some unlikely miracle – can devise a strategy for avoiding all-out war with Tehran.