Qassem Soleimani’s Killing Puts the Middle East on Edge

The assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 by an American drone strike was impulsive and ill-advised. Soleimani has blood on his hands, but targeting a senior official of another country, on President Trump’s order, has created many dangerous downsides and no upsides, none of which serves American interests.

One is tempted to ask what was the main objective of killing Soleimani and why would President Trump and his most hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo go after the second most powerful man in Iran. Was this operation part of Trump and Pompeo’s plan to decapitate the theocratic system regime slowly but surely without calling it “regime change”?  Or was killing the head of the Quds Force the first of many steps aiming at dismantling the Islamic Revolution and emasculating Iran as a regional power?

Media reports indicate that President Trump alerted the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a short while before Soleimani was killed. Were the Saudis given an advance notice as well? Removing Soleimani from the scene was much more than killing just another “terrorist” leader like Osama Bin Laden or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Did the president, Secretary of State Pompeo, and their Israeli and Saudi supporters believe that Soleimani’s death would force Iran to cry uncle? Iran has not fallen apart, and the Iranian people have coalesced around the regime. The recent demonstrations decrying the regime’s initial refusal to take responsibility for unintentionally shooting down a Ukrainian civilian airliner are not driven by Soleimani’s death.

It’s clear by now that the clerical regime is still standing, the Quds Force is still in business, and the state of Iran remains a key player in the Gulf. The assassination has accrued no apparent positive consequences for the Trump administration, the Saudis, or the Israelis, other than eliminating a key player who was definitely a thorn in their side. On the contrary, more and more leaders in Congress are beginning to question the logic of Trump’s action. Several senior administration officials are backtracking on the president’s claim that Soleimani was planning to attack four American embassies and therefore he had to be taken out before such an attack occurred.

European and other countries have expressed concern that the action would lead to more chaos and instability across the region. Despite recent developments of triggering the dispute mechanism within the Iran nuclear deal, the Europeans also have shunned President Trump’s request to outright abandon it. EU countries have called on Washington and Teheran to de-escalate the tensions between them.

Unintended Consequences

The President’s decision has begotten several negative unintended consequences for the United States and for the Middle East. Iran has freed itself from the limits imposed in the nuclear deal on uranium enrichment and seems to be moving away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. Iraq is on the verge of formally asking Washington to pull American troops out of the country. Although it is doubtful whether the administration would oblige the Iraqi request, Trump has threatened severe measures against Iraq should the troops be kicked out. Regardless of the outcome, relations between Baghdad and Washington seem to have cooled off considerably. Instability and sectarian and ethnic conflicts in Iraq are not good for either country.

The ensuing tensions could see a resurgence of terrorism, including ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliated groups, which would result in rising threats to American military and civilian personnel in the region. Furthermore, the president’s decision has led to growing nervousness among American Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf and deepened their fear that the method and justification of Soleimani’s killing might set a precedent for similar actions in the future by other state actors. Senior leaders in other countries in the region could face a similar violent demise. The fact that assassinating a senior security official of another country by a state actor has not been undertaken in almost a century doesn’t mean that it won’t be repeated against another disliked high-level “terrorist” official.

The recent death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the appointment of Haitham bin Tareq al Said as the country’s new leader is bound to increase uncertainty in the region, especially considering the negotiating role that Oman has played between the United States and Iran and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some in Israel’s right-wing government are equally concerned about the fall-out from Soleimani’s death on the long-term relations between Israel and Hezbollah and the stability and security of Israel’s northern border. Lastly, if Russian President Vladimir Putin was not in agreement with killing the Iranian general, he will certainly use the rising anti-American attitudes in the region to Russia’s favor. Putin is a master at fishing in murky waters.

As the architect of Iran’s hegemonic power across the region and the driver of Iran’s strategic relations with several Sunni and Shia proxy groups, Soleimani was a nemesis of the United States. His assassination, however, will not eliminate the perceived threat from Iran or its allies or advance American interests and security in the region. Nor will it cow Iran into submission.

The recent history of targeted killing has shown that eliminating a senior state or non-state leader, no matter how vile, will not neutralize the threat from the group that the assassinated leader associated with. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the removal of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Bin Laden, and al-Baghdadi from the scene did not end the threat from the terror organizations they led. On the contrary, these groups have metastasized and spread across the globe.

Similarly, killing Soleimani will not defang the Quds Force or reduce its influence in Iran and throughout the region. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already appointed Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s deputy, as the new head of the Quds Force. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force will continue to manage a huge array of business enterprises in Iran and internationally. As a result of taking out Soleimani, American adversaries, including Sunni and Shiite pro-Iranian proxy groups, and other terrorist organizations will view American military, security, and diplomatic  personnel across the region as legitimate targets.

Although Trump’s decision did not seem to reflect lengthy deliberations or consensus within the administration, Iran’s expected response by comparison will not be impetuous. It will reflect planning, patience, and cold calculations of the possible consequences.

Soleimani’s killing is not a game changer, as the U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Epser has claimed. The real game changer in U.S.-Iranian relations was the president’s decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimpose severe sanctions against Iran.

A History of Conflict and Cooperation

If news reports about the CIA director’s involvement in the decision-making process before Soleimani’s assassination are accurate, Iranians will quickly see his killing as another American plot in the U.S.-Iranian conflict that dates back to the 1953 coup that toppled the duly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Twenty-five years after the fall of Mosaddegh and the reinstalling of the Shah to the throne, Iranians rose up against the Shah and his American benefactors in a game changing revolution that toppled the Shah and established a theocratic Islamic regime in Iran. 

The new revolutionaries’ animus toward the United States was demonstrated in the hostage crisis when 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. The hostages were released following President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, but Washington continued to harbor serious concerns against the new regime in Teheran. American enmity toward Iran continued throughout the 1980s when the United States supported Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran. The bloody war, which killed almost a million Iranians and Iraqis, resulted in Iran’s defeat, thanks to Washington’s military support. 

Despite the recurring conflict, neither country has resorted to open warfare. Both countries have cooperated in the fight against terrorism after 9/11 and in stabilizing Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Cooperation between the two countries lasted through the end of the Obama administration and culminated in signing the nuclear deal in 2015. As Iran began to pursue a nuclear capability, which could have triggered an ominous nuclear proliferation in the region, the United States and Iran started secret negotiations through the good offices of Oman to put in place a stiff inspection regime to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, President Trump scuttled the agreement in 2018.

Iran helped curb the spread of radical Sunni Wahhabi-Salafi ideology from Saudi Arabia across parts of the Muslim world, from West Africa to Central Asia. Driven by its own regional political calculations, Iran also helped fight the so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. However, it supported the dictatorial regime in Syria and helped blunt all opposition to the Assad rule in that war-torn country.

Iran and the United States have pursued their regional military, political, and economic interests through their allies. Washington has relied on its friendly Arab dictators in Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to further its interests. Similarly, Teheran has relied on its proxies, non-state actors, and friendly regimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. The two states have operated at cross purposes but neither has opted for war. Unfortunately, however, instead of open warfare, the two countries have resorted to cyber warfare and hacking into each other’s military and financial systems.

If there is a silver lining in the recent tragic turn of events, it is that Washington and Teheran have moved away from the brink of war and have opted to take the de-escalation off-ramps they offered each other since Soleimani’s killing. Yet, some of the administration’s closest domestic and foreign allies — Evangelical Christians, right-wing Israeli leaders, and some Sunni Arab autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere — continue to support Trump’s campaign against Iran, albeit more circumspectly. Fortunately for the United States, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, President Trump has so far resisted the call to war.

In order to walk away from the precipice, however, if regime change is not a key objective of the Trump administration, Washington jointly with the EU, Oman, Qatar, should seek a diplomatic outcome to tensions between Iran and United States. Negotiations could cover both nuclear and non-nuclear issues, which could lead to a new Middle East 21st century peace deal.

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