Soleimani was known to have been one of the most powerful people in Iran, second only to the Ayatollah himself.
The airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, leader of the country’s elite al-Quds force, and also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Iraq’s Hashd-al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, seems to have finally given a significant chunk of Trump’s support base a rude awakening: contrary to his claims, the current POTUS is no anti-interventionist. For all his dovish posturing and promises on the 2016 campaign trail to bring American troops home and withdraw from the “endless wars” in the Middle East (a position that arguably played a huge part in winning him the presidency of the United States), he may have just lit a fuse on a situation that even he will find impossible to contain. By killing Soleimani, Trump has chosen to take a drastic course of action that even Barack Obama, who engaged in continuous drone warfare throughout his presidency, and George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq, were loath to undertake out of fear that it would have catastrophic consequences for the United States and American presence in the Middle East.
This development signals a clear failure of the Trump administration’s so-called ‘maximum pressure’ strategy – which aimed to economically besiege Iran through sanctions to the point of bringing the country to its knees. And the irony is that it might actually have worked, too, given the wave of protests that took place across the country – had Donald Trump not jolted the country’s population into uniting in their grief after he decided to ruthlessly assassinate one of their most popular national figures. For the time being, national solidarity over what is being seen as an illegal assassination has quashed the popular protests that were taking place across the country. So Trump’s directive has backfired spectacularly, and if unfolding events are anything to go by, it looks like from here on out, the United States is set to face a tremendous amount of blowback for carrying out such an ill-advised operation so hastily.
This would not be the first time that Trump has strayed from his promise to end American meddling in the Middle East. He has twice bombed Syria, the first two years of his presidency saw an increase of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and he vetoed a Congressional attempt to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Lest we forget, an impeached president whose approval ratings continue to nosedive with each passing week of his presidency, has bypassed Congress to order the assassinations of two incredibly high-ranking officers, both of whom commanded a vast amount of political influence in their respective countries (some have pointed out the striking similarity between Bill Clinton’s decision to launch air strikes at Iraq in the wake of the impeachment proceedings he faced in 1998, given that this development comes only weeks after Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives). Should he still be allowed to wield such an enormous amount of unchecked power?
For his part, Soleimani, often compared to the Soviet spymaster Karla from John le Carre’s espionage novels for his masterful command of the Quds force, was known to have been one of the most powerful people in Iran, second only to the Ayatollah himself. There was even talk of him being considered for the premiership of the country. Soleimani however preferred to work more discreetly as the commander of the al-Quds force, a post he held for more than two decades since 1998. His legacy includes organizing effective military resistance to ISIS as well as the American occupation of Iraq, their efforts to oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and their involvement in Yemen, fighting side by side with the Saudis. There have, interestingly enough, also been two separate occasions when the objectives of Soleimani’s al-Quds operations aligned with American military interests in the region: namely while fighting the Taliban in Herat in 2001 and then in fighting Islamic State in Iraq.
Those concerned about what the fall-out from Soleimani’s death means for the region point out that he was one of the most effective forces against ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that successfully took over large swathes of Syria before capturing the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. His work training and overseeing the operations of Iraqi militias fighting ISIS is credited with pushing back the rogue rebel faction. Will his death empower Daesh now that their arch nemesis is no more? Given that Soleimani made himself a fair share of enemies through his efforts to strengthen Iran’s position as a regional power, he could hardly have underestimated the constant threat to his life and was likely grooming his successor to take his place. The Quds force relies on an entire chain of command as part of its hierarchy, and despite Soleimani’s successful leadership, the fact remains that he was, at the end of the day, an officer following orders. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, has already assumed command of the al-Quds force. He now vows to end American presence in the Middle East.
The American Department of State wasted no time in justifying Soleimani’s assassination on the pretext that he was a “killer” responsible for the deaths of “thousands of Americans”, as if he reveled in personally murdering innocent American citizens. The reality is that Soleimani, as commander of the al-Quds force that is entasked with Iranian security operations in the wider region, trained paramilitary and resistance groups in Iraq and Syria who were fighting the American invasion of their countries. As Muhammad Marandi, professor at the University of Tehran points out, these were groups taking up armed opposition against the American occupation of Iraq. Yes, Soleimani’s actions can be said to have indirectly enabled the elimination of American enemy targets – but that’s what happens in a war. American intelligence officers and American generals operate no differently. While it is also true that Soleimani was an enabler of the authoritarianism of the Iranian state, given his role in crushing dissent and protests within the country, the United States should not take upon itself the responsibility of acting as watchdog and moral arbiter insofar as the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation. Whether the ruling regime stays or goes should be a decision left to the Iranian people, not the government or military of the United States.
There is no good reason for the US to embark on a war with Iran. America’s previous military adventures in the Middle East have proven disastrous beyond measure. The US will have been stationed in Afghanistan for nineteen years this October, in a war that shows no signs of coming to a close anytime soon. If the Americans have had to face one crushing defeat after another in the long drawn-out war in Afghanistan, a country that lacks basic infrastructure or any real military capacity, then what chance do they stand against Iran, a self-sufficient country with a developed infrastructure? If they have not yet been able to master the barren, mountainous topography of Afghanistan, what chance is there that an occupation of Iran will not prove even more disastrous for the US, a country that, geographically, is completely alien territory for American soldiers? If American troops have consistently proven to be no match for the guerilla forces of the Taliban, what chance can they really, realistically hope to stand against Iran’s highly trained, highly sophisticated armed forces?
There are many problems with the theocrats in power in Iran. There is widespread state repression, the popular protests against the regime’s decision to were brutally put down, women are still arrested for casting off the mandatory head covering and watching sporting events alongside men at stadiums, several celebrities and social media stars have been forced to leave the country for alleged ‘immodesty’, and there are many families outside of Iran whose loved ones have been detained and imprisoned by Iranian state authorities. But by antagonizing Iranians, casting Iran as the ‘axis of evil’ and portraying the Iranian government as a bogeyman out to terrorize the American public, the US paints a hugely problematic and inaccurate picture of a country with an ancient history, a country with diverse customs and traditions, with a multiethnic, multilingual polity (a good deal of which is also westernized and has been seen to welcome cultural influences from the west and Europe). By playing their cards right, the US could have found a potential ally in the Iranian people, but now, in one fell swoop, they may have turned all Iranians against the US government for good.
The US has to understand that in killing Soleimani, it has acted with impunity, overstepped its bounds, and violated international law. Alex Shams, a PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and founder of the Ajam Media Collective, wrote the following on his Facebook: “If you think Soleimani’s assassination was justified because he’s a “bad guy,” would you justify the killing of folks like Cheney and Rumsfeld the same way? The “bad guys” who started a war killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? This is how that argument looks from Iran.”
There is also the fact that by killing Soleimani, Trump has put into mortal danger not just the lives of millions of people in the Middle East and neighbouring South Asia, but he has also endangered the safety and well-being of the American troops who are stationed in the area and foreign employees who live and work in the Middle East. And American national security is not more infallible today, after Soleimani has been killed, than it was before. If anything, the Americans are, unfortunately, likely to commit more violations of international law because of the paranoia they harbour against a possible retaliation from Iran. It is a paranoia they have brought upon themselves.
Already, Donald Trump has threatened to attack 52 cultural and heritage sites in Iran (despite resolution 2347 of the UN clearly stating that destroying cultural heritage sites amounts to a war crime), and vowed to impose severe sanctions on Iraq should they try to expel American troops from the country (since the Iraqi parliament has passed a resolution calling for the evacuation of American soldiers). Despite Trump’s declaration that he acted not to start a war, but to end one, he has increased American military presence in the Middle East. 3000 US troops have already been flown to Kuwait since Iran vowed to avenge the death of their fallen combatant.
Despite Trump’s decision to bypass Congress to order the airstrike, there has been feeble Democratic opposition to the current crisis that we are seeing unfold. Pushing aside concerns about whether Soleimani and Muhandis should even have been targeted in the manner in which they were, leading Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have instead chosen to oppose the President on purely procedural grounds – that he failed to seek Congressional approval before ordering the kill. With the exception of perhaps Senator Bernie Sanders, none of the current Democratic presidential candidates have railed against American military aggression in the Middle East.
Trump faces some opposition from within the conservative camp, particularly from conservative libertarians like Ron Paul who remain outspoken advocates for non-intervention in the Middle East. At the same time, he is being cheered on by neoconservative elements close to the administration who openly call for regime change in Iran – see John Bolton’s gleeful tweet that came hours after Soleimani and Muhandis were killed.
The situation with Iran has been on a steady downward spiral ever since the Trump administration chose to unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, architected by the Obama administration. That the deal was drawn up under the previous administration, and not of Donald Trump’s making, is something that allegedly bothered the current POTUS – the fact that he could not take credit for such a landmark treaty with Iran, a country which since 1979 has been public enemy number one for the United States. Iran had been complying with the terms of the treaty while it remained binding; limiting their production of enriched uranium, allowing regular checks and inspections, and even pouring cement into their nuclear reactors as a show of good faith. Now that the US has so brazenly eliminated Soleimani, with little regard for whether it violates international law, the Iranians have said they will no longer comply with the terms of the deal. Exiting the nuclear deal has long been denounced by experts on all sides as an incredibly unwise step.
If Trump really meant to inflict punishment on someone for alleged war crimes, then he must have had a recent change of heart, given that he just pardoned Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL notorious for having committed atrocious war crimes during the time he was stationed in Iraq, like stabbing a captured militant to death and then posing for pictures with the body. Gallagher’s own colleagues have gone on record to call him “freaking evil” and “okay with killing anything that moved”. Does the president really then care about war crimes committed against innocent people, or did he simply take the targeted assassination option when it was offered to him by the Pentagon because he saw a strategic and military victory in eliminating Soleimani?
Just days before Trump ordered the airstrike that killed General Soleimani, the President and First Lady were asked by reporters on New Year’s Eve if they had any resolutions for the new year. A grinning Melania Trump said she wanted world peace, and Trump expressed his commitment to the same. Now that the US is closer to a full blown armed confrontation with Iran than it has been during any other time in recent memory, Melania may have to wait a while before she can see her New Year’s wish come to fruition – thanks to her husband.
Mahnoor Khan is an undergraduate student of Social Development and Policy at Habib University. Her interests include political science, cultural anthropology and international relations.