Isranet, Jan. 7, 2020
Much ink has already been spilled on the sudden, unexpected American drone attack in Baghdad which killed Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Brigade head responsible for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations. Soleimani, the number two figure in the Iranian Islamic regime, after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was a far more important figure in Middle East dynamics than either of his terrorist analogues, Al-Qaida’s Osama Bin Laden, or IS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Commentary on Donald Trump’s action has so far split along expected political-ideological grounds. Conservative Republicans are applauding the President’s action as just and over-due retribution for Soleimani’s decades of terrorist acts in support of the Iranian regime’s murderous policies.
These stretch from involvement in the 1983 Beirut embassy and Marine Barracks bombings (total 314 dead) and the French and U.S embassy attacks of the same year in Kuwait (scores wounded), through the 1992 Argentina attacks on Israel’s Buenos Aires Embassy and 1994 AMIA Jewish Community Center attacks (total 114 dead), to the 1996 Kohbar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 US servicemen and wounded 498 people.
It was Soleimani who built up the financial and military support network undergirding Hamas (Gaza) and Hezbollah (Lebanon) terrorists, and who backed the Shiite militias attacking US and coalition forces in Iraq (over 600 US soldiers killed, and thousands wounded, by Teheran-supplied IEDs). After 2011 he worked, with Russia, to save the Hafez al-Assad regime in Syria, using Hezbollah and IRGC soldiers (over 500,000 dead, millions of refugees, and repeated use of gas attacks and bombing of civilian centers and hospitals).
Soleimani also played a role domestically in Iran in the bloody, IRGC-led suppression of civilian demonstrations in 2009, 2017, and this December. His finger-prints were on the Houthis’ rebellion in Yemen, attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the temporary capture and humiliation of American sailors there, the recent downing of an American drone, and missile attacks from Iranian soil on Saudi Arabian oil wells following US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear pact. And he flew from Damascus to Baghdad after the recent Islamic militias’ raid on the US Embassy there., in order to fine-tune continuing attacks.
Liberal-progressive Democrats, while noting Soleimani’s unsavory record, seem unable to see anything positive in Donald Trump’s action. Their formulaic “yes…but” responses downplay both the seriousness of the current situation and the horrific scale of the Quds’ leader’s murderousness: Yes, individually Soleimani probably deserved his end, but surely Trump miscalculated in doing it now, stirring the dangers of Iranian vengeance and risking a retribution outweighing any benefits in removing him.
In some cases, the “Yes…but”ers predicted immediate dire consequences—everything from a wider regional war to domestic terrorist attacks in the U.S., and even (as one pundit, analogizing killing the Iranian to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which sparked World War I) the outbreak of World War III.
(Joe Biden likened the event to “throwing a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”. Bernie Sanders, terming the Iranian general’s killing an “assassination”, called it a “dangerous miscalculation…which could cost countless lives and cost trillions of dollars and lead to even more death, more conflict”. Elizabeth Warren denounced the “reckless move” which would increase the possibility of another Middle East conflict.)
Lost in the immediate partisan play of opinion, were two simple and related facts. First, that this was a considered move on the part of an Administration which had, in fact, proved quite cautious in its reaction to sustained prior Iranian provocations (and even been criticized for this). The US did not react directly to the shooting down of its drone, or to the recent Iran-based missile attack on Saudi oilfields. Indeed, in recent weeks Trump had warned Iran not to take precipitate actions (with one tweet even noting that this was “A THREAT”).
Hence the decision to act on intelligence about Soleimani’s late-night arrival in Baghdad—although no doubt triggered by the recent death of an American due to Iraqi Shiite militia rocket attack (to which the U.S. had responded forcefully) and the militias’ attempt to overrun the US embassy in Baghdad–was obviously taken with consideration and care, and in full awareness of possible Iranian reactions.
Iranian legislators in unison shouted “Death to America”, making threats to attack regional US bases and installations and even the White House, and announcing an $80 million reward for Trump’s assassination. They have been met by Secretary of State Pompeo’s resolute announcement on the Sunday TV news shows of American readiness to defend its citizens whenever and wherever they are attacked, and by President Trump’s reference to no less than 52 key Iranian sites the U.S. would demolish if Teheran were to respond with force.
This careful consideration before the decision to remove Soleimani clearly implies a readiness to absorb whatever reaction it elicits from Iran. And it leads to a second major fact, a decision decisively either radically to delimit, or largely to shut down, Iranian terrorist activities in the Middle East. Clear indications of a massive response, reinforced by an evident readiness to employ the recent and ongoing build-up of U.S. naval, air and ground forces should Iran respond aggressively, have two, related purposes.
They are designed either to encourage Teheran to back down or, should the ayatollahs be foolish enough to disregard Trump’s clear warning, to accomplish the one major thing (despite the “52 steps” reference) which will finally neutralize Iranian potential: destroy its nuclear installations and capacity. (N.B.: Iran’s announcement on Sunday that it was, in fact, now entirely cancelling the JCPOA agreement–still supposedly in force with France, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and China, and the UN–and re-starting its nuclear program, may well be a mistake, one facilitating the latter possibility.)
Reinforcing this purposive interpretation is another fact, that this is not a propitious moment for Iran to go on the offensive against the U.S. and its regional allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates). Teheran is reeling economically from the massive and effective American trade and financial embargo associated with Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA deal. And it has just experienced a renewed wave of bloodily suppressed popular demonstrations, which indicate broad dissatisfaction with the regime, especially among younger, urban Iranians.
And now it has also lost its major, experienced military-ideological leader, the key figure in orchestrating Teheran’s regional network of fractious Islamist minions, just as their host states are in crisis. Lebanon has its own severe economic and political problems; Syria, where Russia is limiting Iranian influence; in Gaza, Hamas’ hold is evidently weakening; in Iraq street demonstrations celebrating Soleimani’s death broke out, even as pro-Iraq legislators voted a (non-binding) resolution demanding American expulsion; and in Yemen (where the Iran-backed Houthi rebels are increasingly hard-pressed by Saudi Arabia-supported forces). Even Turkey, never wild about Assad and now a factor in north-east Syria, and on the verge of sending expeditionary troops to Libya, is a wild card.)
Trump has said repeatedly that the killing of Soleimani was defensive, not offensive, and that he wants to end a war, not start a wider one. Sounding like Teddy Roosevelt, who famously said “Walk quietly, but carry a big stick”, he has also warned Khamenei and company that the “good old days” of relative American passivity, and Iranian impunity, are over. (Nor, given the major success of American “fracking”, does Iran any longer hold an oil embargo weapon over the Americans.)
Massive regime-backed demonstrations, legislators shouting “Death to America”, and even threats to bomb Washington and assassinate the President, can all be tolerated—but it is now clearly very risky, internally and externally, for Khamenei actually to take major military, or terrorist, actions.
Hence Soleimani’s just elimination should be understood to mean a new, more determined American policy line. This can, in the event of a functional Iranian stand-down, even lead (something Trump has reiterated) to renewed negotiations on a realistic regional settlement. Or, given an Iranian miscalculation of American resolve, it can lead to a major, sustained, and potentially decisive American response (already, 14,000 forces have been introduced into the region, and another 3,000 are on the way). But although American servicemen and servicewomen in and contiguous to the Middle East total some 85,000, what is not at stake here is another ground war or G.H.W. Bush-style Kuwait invasion.
Trump has no illusions about either “state-building” or waging a land war in Iran. Any military riposte to Iranian action will use decisively powerful American air and sea superiority and immensely destructive high-tech weaponry. If the nuclear facilities were not the immediate target, Iran’s highly vulnerable and concentrated refinery center might be, destruction of which would further cripple its fragile economy. But taking down Teheran’s nuclear plant, thus destroying its greatest potential threat, that of becoming a nuclear-armed power has no doubt been under review for some time.
Of course, there can be no absolute certainties in human affairs; chance often plays a key, and unforeseen, role, and Teheran (which has generally been a cautious regime politically) or one of its less rational terrorist protégés, may yet miscalculate (as General Soleimani evidently did), plunging the region into some kind of mixed terrorist-“normal” military war. Yet Trump here is not simply ”rolling the dice”—given American strengths and Iranian weaknesses, and despite Democratic doubts and caviling, the calculated risk is limited, the probability of Iranian ultimate forbearance is probably high, and even the cost of dealing with an Iranian attack sustainable.
(Nevertheless, the regional actors involved or potentially affected, including Israel, repeatedly threatened with genocide by the Iranian mullahs, would do well to keep their powder dry.)
Importantly, Trump’s determination may also reflect (surely part of the Khamenei regime’s current thinking as well) the possibility of a crisis-induced military confrontation provoking serious domestic unrest, and even insurrection. This resolution, devoutly to be wished, may well undergird the new American policy.
Clearly the stakes involved here are high. Iran has since 1979 been the major source of ideologically aggressive instability and destruction in the region. From the eight-year Iran–Iraq war (1980-88) and its million casualties, its role in Lebanon, the ongoing Syrian civil war, and now Yemen, Iran has been connected to and responsible for literally millions of deaths, a World War II-worthy scale of destruction.
Substantial contraction of Teheran’s regional power and influence, let alone the collapse of the ayatollahs’ bloody regime, would go far to stabilize Middle East politics and society. It could also create the permissive conditions for the success of Trump’s vaunted, and, as yet, unimplemented, peace process, which may well be one hoped-for consequence of the current confrontation. (Here, Democratic “yes-but”ers had best tread carefully, lest the President’s morally and legally justified elimination of the twenty-first century’s greatest war criminal prove politically popular, and their opposition to it become, along with the politicized “impeachment” campaign, yet another nail in their 2020 election coffin.)
(Prof. Frederick Krantz, a historian, is Director of the Canadian
Institute for Jewish Research and Editor of the Daily Isranet Briefing).