The Assassination of Qassem Soleimani Institutionalizes Anti-American Sentiment in Iran
The attempt to create discord within Iran over the killing of Soleimani, who was widely respected by Iranians of many different walks of life as the protector of Iranian national security, is doomed to fail.
The Trump administration’s strategic miscalculation in assassinating Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has institutionalized anti-American sentiment in Iran’s domestic politics and among the Iranian public. This has given Iran’s government the upper hand in confronting U.S. strategic goals in the greater Middle East region, consequently challenging America’s global position.
Immediately after the assassination, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in series of tweets, announced that the U.S. reaction to any Iranian reprisal would be “fast” and “hard,” striving to justify their so-called preemptive action as the elimination of a so-called terrorist figure. They stressed that this operation was necessary for saving American lives and will help bring about peace and stability in the region.
However, what the Trump administration appears to be pursuing is an Israeli-style "campaign between the wars," which keeps military pressure on an enemy even when no state of war officially exists. With this psychological measure, Trump is trying to create political divisions in Iran’s domestic politics with regard to the scope of Iran’s retaliatory response while decreasing the impacts of the global condemnation of Soleimani’s assassination.
The attempt to create discord within Iran over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, who was widely respected by Iranians of many different walks of life as the protector of Iranian national security, is doomed to fail. The assassination will only generate more anxiety and anti-U.S. sentiment among the Iranian people. This has already been apparent in the attendance of millions of Iranians from virtually every social class at the funeral processions held in Soleimani’s honor.
In parallel to this public anxiety, Iranian officials are talking about taking “severe revenge” in both symmetric and asymmetric military dimensions — meaning the targeting of U.S. military bases and personnel in the region either directly or via local militia allies. Iran cannot afford not to respond to the Soleimani assassination in order to demonstrate and preserve its national strength and solidarity. Moreover, a retaliation for the assassination will fulfill the expectations of Iran’s regional allies, who consider Tehran the leader of “axis of resistance” and also want revenge.
Considering Iran’s extensive regional influence, the institutionalization of anti-U.S. sentiment among the Iranian people has grave strategic consequences for the U.S. and its regional and global status. Less than one century ago, Iranians regarded the U.S. as a positive “third party” that could help their country resist the political-economic demands of the colonial powers of the time, Russia (later the Soviets) and Britain. The CIA’s involvement in the coup that overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in August 1953 was a turning point in terms of the rise of anti-U.S. enmity in Iran. By enhancing elite, political, and military relations with the U.S., the Shah’s regime tried to decrease this sense of enmity within the public. But bilateral relations further deteriorated after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Later, the U.S. fully supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran during the 1980s and the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf in July 1988, both of which have intensified Iranian feelings of hostility toward the U.S.
The deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations became more severe following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still more severe following the Arab Spring in 2011 and the emergence of regional crises in Syria and Yemen. For the U.S., apparently, the goal continues to be bringing Iran back into its diplomatic fold. Washington has already tried all the means available, such as public diplomacy and direct contact with Iranians, direct negotiations, the pursuit of regime change in Tehran, and the imposition of coercive economic sanctions in order to collapse the Iranian state from inside.
In this respect, President Trump has continued his so-called “maximum pressure” policy to weaken the Iranian government. Yet he seems gradually to have realized that there is a slim chance to initiate direct talks with Iran on his terms. Even so, Iran’s increased regional power and influence threatens the cornerstones of U.S. regional policy: guaranteeing the security of Israel and protecting conservative Arab allies. Iran’s opposition is a key impediment for fulfilling U.S. strategic goals in these regards.
Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) ended any hope inside Iran that its prolonged strategic discrepancy with the U.S. and the West might be solved in the context of a win-win situation. Iranians expected the JCPOA to pave the way for further political interactions with world powers, resulting in a better life and increased economic growth and development. Increasingly the Iranian public has come to feel that Washington’s real problem with Iran is not its government’s behavior or its regional policy, but rather it is the state of Iran itself. The U.S. and its allies fear Iran’s emergence as a dominant Middle Eastern power and what that might mean for preserving the regional status quo, which the U.S. sees as the best policy to preserve its national interests. That concern has increased as Iran has developed more comprehensive economic and political-security cooperation with the two main global rivals of the U.S.—Russia and China.
From the U.S. perspective, Iran’s geopolitical strength, its vast economic potential, and its active role in battling terrorism will compel Russia and China to strengthen relations with Tehran under any circumstances. An alliance of these three states could imbalance current West-oriented regional political-security trends at the expense of the U.S. and its allies’ interests. The recent joint Chinese-Iranian-Russian naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean caused concerns among the U.S. and its allies. Trump says that he withdrew from the JCPOA in order to contain Iran’s regional role and limit its missile activities. One may argue that he also sought to contain Iran’s growing ties with these two global rivals in the Middle East.
In such circumstances, perhaps the Trump administration and the U.S. intelligence community calculated that Soleimani was the main impediment to changing Iran’s regional policy, and decided to eliminate him in order to pave the way for direct talks with Iran. But this is surely a miscalculated perception of the strategic logic of Iran’s regional presence. Decisions on Iran’s regional policy are taken by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and at the highest levels of the Iranian government. Soleimani was only a single high profile commander who was effective at operationalizing these policies. Killing him is unlikely to change Iran’s strategic direction.
Iran’s regional presence is based on a simple logic: preempting the penetration of symmetric and asymmetric threats inside Iran’s borders. Fulfilling this national security goal requires Iran to secure both its national borders and, in specific cases, areas beyond those borders. In the course of time, this logic has created the concept of a “wider security zone” in the strategic calculus employed by Iranian political-security elites. Soleimani was perceived by the Iranian public as the mastermind of this deterrence policy. Iran’s rule of regional engagement for several years has been that increased threats from the region require an increased and active Iranian response.
The basis of Iran’s decision to sign the JCPOA was the preservation of the country’s conventional deterrent strength. Trump’s miscalculation is based on achieving an impossibility — depriving Iran of defensive capabilities that are well-regarded by the Iranian people. In fact, it has been the U.S. and its regional allies, and the threat they pose to Tehran’s regional interests, that have pushed Iran toward strengthening its asymmetric power through forming and enhancing local networks of friendly forces. Trump’s insistence on threatening, sanctioning, and now targeted killing could lead Iran to seek other unconventional military means to protect itself. In this regard, Iran announced on Sunday that it was taking another step to reduce its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA, which effectively ends the nuclear deal at least in the near future.
Soleimani’s assassination is a turning point in institutionalizing the Iranian public’s sense of enmity toward the U.S., giving the government of Iran the domestic justification to endanger U.S. interests by all means at its disposal. It is evident now that President Trump cannot achieve his aims through threat of force. To avoid an all-out war that will harm both nations, the best policy for President Trump in the short-term is first to stop the threats, which only further raise the ire of the Iranian people. He should furthermore refrain from responding to Iran’s reprisal measure in the coming days. Moving forward, the U.S. president should end his “maximum pressure” policy (which in my view was foisted upon President Trump mainly by the Israelis and the Saudis, and some European countries), accept the totality of the JCPOA, and start to understand that Iran cannot afford to withdraw from the Middle East for national security reasons. These steps could pave the way for a meaningful diplomacy based on equal terms, to solve regional and bilateral problems.
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also an associate professor of international relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University.
|Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump (Department of State via Flickr)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.