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Guest opinion: The real question concerning the killing of Qassem Soleimani

SHARE Guest opinion: The real question concerning the killing of Qassem Soleimani
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President Donald Trump’s decision to order the targeted assassination of the head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard’s overseas operation, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is the riskiest and most dangerous confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic since 1979. For all practical purposes, Trump has declared war on the Islamic regime in Iran. 

The question we must ask today is why now? Why did President Trump choose this moment to target a senior military commander of Iran, a recognized member of the government of the state of Iran? Why touch a match to a tinderbox that might engulf the region and the United States in a protracted and devastating war?

No leader starts a war thinking they will lose it. But history provides many examples of how leaders overestimated their powers and were defeated at a great cost to all involved.   

There is no doubt Qassem Soleimani was a ruthless and a cunning mastermind of the Iranian regime’s expansionist posture in the Middle East. Removing him is a major counter-terrorism victory for the United States and a body blow to the Islamic Republic. But it is not a fatal blow. 

Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani was a political decision motivated by a misguided perception of Iran’s domestic situation and the alleged vulnerability of its leadership amid economic sanctions and civil uprisings. President Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hoped to add fuel to the fires of civil uprisings in Iran. Instead, this action will actually have an opposite impact because it is a major setback for the opposition inside Iran and for future U.S. foreign policy and security goals in the Middle East. This targeted killing has provided the Iranian regime with a perfect political opportunity to ramp up nationalistic feelings in the country and to portray the assassination as a war on the peoples of Iran and Iraq.

In an unprecedented action, the Iraqi parliament voted 170-0 to expel American troops from Iraq. This has put Trump in a difficult position, as indicated by his now threatening Iraq with sanctions.

Trump felt (or was ill-advised) that the killing of a senior Revolutionary Guard commander would have a domino effect inside Iran. By this calculation, the ripple effects of the assassination would ultimately lead to the implosion of a regime hated by its people. John Limbert, a former U.S. diplomat who was held hostage in Iran in 1979-1981, described Trump’s approach to Iran as a “combination of bullying, threats, accusations and unrealistic demands,” an approach that makes “the commander-in-chief look confused, small-minded and petulant” while extending to the Iranian government “a gift,” namely “the opportunity to … defy a strong and threatening foreign power.” Pompeo and his Iran policy adviser Brian Hook have been consumed by domestic civil uprisings in Iran. This action is, by the administration’s account, the military dimension of maximum pressure. But they do not have a deep knowledge of Iran’s domestic politics and Iran’s power centers. Their superficial readings of Iran may now lead the United States into a protracted war. Just like the ill-advised decision by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, Trump and Pompeo will pay the price of their ill-advised policy choice.  

Although most Americans have never heard of Soleimani, he was a well-known figure in and outside of Iran. A fluent Arabic speaker with more than three decades of combat and intelligence experience, he was a close adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

Soleimani was both a shadow foreign minister and a senior military official. He met with Vladimir Putin of Russia, advised Bashar Assad of Syria and played a crucial role advising Iraqi politicians. Foreign leaders saw him as a conduit to the Iranian Supreme Leader, and frequently engaged with him when it came to important strategic decisions. On Feb. 26, 2019, it was reported that Soleimani arranged for a secret trip by Assad to meet with Khamenei without the knowledge of the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif submitted his resignation protesting Soleimani’s involvement. In the end Zarif had to take back his resignation, a public humiliation for him, but a public endorsement of Soleimani’s power and influence. 

Undoubtedly, Soleimani’s public posture and presence gave the impression to Trump and his advisers that he was the person holding many of the important reins of power in Iran. For that reason, they assumed that eliminating him would be a fatal blow to the regime, even instigating a popular uprising against it. But Iranians have a history of standing up to foreign interventions, and no matter how much they may hate their government, watching a senior military official assassinated in an asymmetrical manner is considered an attack on their nation, not on its government. 

A rudimentary analysis of how Iranians responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of their country in September 1980 would have shown how Iranians would respond to the targeted assassination of a figure like Soleimani. But no such analysis, apparently, was ever made. Instead of causing a popular uprising against an unpopular regime in Tehran, Trump’s action has put the United States on a confrontational path with uncertain consequences. 

As the world waits to see the inevitable Iranian response to the killing of Soleimani, and Trump threatens to bomb Iran’s cultural sites and locations should Iran retaliate, the last thing on both the mind of Trump and Khamenei is the plight of the Iranian people, a nation that lost over one million of its youth to a senseless war started by Saddam Hussein (1980-88).

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, it seems that once again, Iranians and Americans might have to pay the price for misguided political decisions by their leaders who start wars thinking they can win them. 

Lawrence Wilkerson is a board member of the Baskerville Institute, he served 31 years in the U.S. Army, held prominent positions, including Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, associate director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, director and deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia. 

Bahman Baktiari is Executive Director of the Baskerville Institute. He has published and taught extensively on Iranian politics and society,