Qassem Soleimani, affectionately called Haj Qassem in Iran, is dead. The touted Middle Eastern superstar has been made no more. And, so far, beyond the initial shock, we are only left with numerous commentaries about the potential impact of his assassination. Soleimani will be smiling in his soon grave-to-be in his hometown of Kerman. The general who had reportedly already willed his resting place to be in the martyrs’ cemetery with his name mentioned without his military titles, only as soldier, has been made even more of a superstar in death than life. To be sure, Trumpists say his assassination was long overdue, and deterrence against checking Iran’s malign regional behavior has been established. Some really optimistic souls even go as far as saying that the killing of Tehran’s “uber-terrorist” may put “another potential carrot on the bargaining table beside the eventual lifting of economic sanctions — namely, a commitment from the United States not to use military force to threaten other top leaders or the regime’s survival itself.”
But there are even more commentaries that — while making sure to always point out that Soleimani “had blood on his hands” (as though other on the ground military leaders don’t) — are worried, and say the decision was not wise and will lead to further escalation to another undesired and unnecessary war. Meanwhile, Tehran has vowed revenge, but so far various Iranian politicians and military folks seem to be relishing the thought of keeping everyone in anticipation while prodding the President of the United States into making even more bellicose statements that smugly suggest potential war crimes.
Despite the rush to comment, though, it is difficult to say anything beyond speculative regarding implications and consequences. The only thing we know for sure is that U.S. foreign and security policy in the Middle East has been replete with unintended consequences. We also know for sure that a military officer respected and liked by the majority, not all, of his countrymen and women was assassinated by the order of an impeached politician who is despised at least by half, if not more, of his countrymen and women for his vulgarity, America-first bravado, and cruelty; even if few who loath him are willing to go as far as saying that he, like previous U.S. presidents who have ordered killings abroad, also has blood on his hands.
What is left out in the conversation regarding whether Trump was strategic or not, wise or dumb, are the circumstances that made him order what he did with an arrogance that comes with power. So, let me hazard a guess in this regard.
Despite all the grandiose claims and accusations about Tehran’s power, aspirations, and malign conduct in the region, it is its perceived weakness that made the assassination thinkable. If the Islamic Republic of Iran was considered a “normal” adversary (to borrow one of Mike Pompeo’s favorite idioms), the United States would not even think about killing one of its prominent generals in broad daylight and take responsibility for it. Come to think of it, Washington would not even entertain the possibility of putting its military, with which it had cooperated in Afghanistan in early 2000s and then just a couple of years ago in Iraq, on the terrorist list. It would not pursue a policy of “maximum pressure” to bring the country’s leadership to its knees by economically pressuring its population.
I am not making a judgement about whether this presumption of weakness is wise or accurate. I am highlighting a reality. All the various policies that have been pursued by successive U.S. administrations, from dual containment to maximum pressure, with the exception of the decision to engage with Iran in nuclear talks, have been based on an understanding that Iran can be threatened, bullied, and cowed because, well, it can be. To be sure, justifications abound otherwise, namely that the Islamic Republic of Iran is uniquely run by a murderous bunch of thugs as though it is particularly abnormal in this regard; it is a threat, now apparently imminent; it has hegemonic aspirations, and so on.
Nuclear talks were the only recent instance that this presumption was temporarily set aside. It was grudgingly done and accepted. And, now the disdain that is directed at President Obama’s supposed “appeasing” of Iran is a scorn directed at a leader of a powerful — self-declared “exceptional” — country who was not sufficiently strong enough to understand that weaklings should be only man-handled and not placated lest they become even more of a burden and/or uppity.
Tehran is caught is a difficult situation. If it does not respond to Soleimani’s assassination in ways that hurts, it will have confirmed the presumption of weakness. And, if it does, it may further stir an adversary that believes only arrogant power and brute force counts.