Iran’s most powerful, revered, and feared military commander long said he dreamed of being a martyr for the “resistance.” And in the early hours Friday morning that wish was fulfilled, when an armed American drone assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
U.S. officials portrayed the targeted killing as a “preemptive” action against the chief of Iran’s elite Qods Force and the leader of the Iraqi Shiite Kata’ib Hezbollah militia traveling with him. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they were planning an imminent attack that he asserted would have cost “dozens or hundreds of American lives.”
Yet rather than acting as a deterrent, the U.S. strike is being seen in Iran as an acute escalation that amounts to a declaration of war and requires a military response.
It is the latest in a series of events to raise tensions in Iraq in the past week – including the killing of an American contractor on an Iraqi base, a U.S. retaliatory strike that killed at least two dozen members of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, and, in turn, an attack led by that militia on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Together, they have brought the smoldering U.S.-Iran standoff to a new level of violence, and could trigger a much broader and more lethal direct conflict.
President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of an American flag shortly after the United States claimed responsibility for the drone strike. He later tweeted that General Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans” and “should have been taken out many years ago.”
But many are raising questions about the administration’s calculations in killing one of Iran’s most popular and iconic symbols of resistance. Despite ample opportunities, past American presidents and Israeli commanders had refrained from taking him out amid the high risk and uncertain consequences of global retaliation by Iran and its loyal proxies.
As tensions flare, questions are also being raised about the apparent disconnect between policymakers in Washington and the realities in Iraq and Iran where, analysts say, American boasting about the assassination of General Soleimani is likely to energize and motivate Iranian-led retaliation.
“The irony here is that an action that was supposed to deter additional Iranian attacks in the region is now bound to do the exact opposite,” says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.
“President Trump has helped to consolidate the most hard-line elements within the Islamic Republic,” says Mr. Vaez, contacted in Oman.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “is averse to demonstrating weakness, and if Iran fails to respond, that’s how it’s going to be interpreted in Washington, and would invite additional U.S. attacks,” says Mr. Vaez. “Iran has developed this network of proxies and partners throughout the region precisely for this moment.”
U.S.-Iraq ties at risk
The assassination has also jeopardized U.S. ties to Iraq, and galvanized calls for the expulsion of more than 5,000 American troops deployed there. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi called the killing “a dangerous escalation” that will ignite a “devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world.”
“This is just the beginning,” says an Iraqi official in Baghdad who asked not to be named. “So far you’ve had a few bits of glass broken [at the U.S. Embassy] … a few walls that were spray-painted. There’s much more to come.”
“I personally believe that the United States misread the situation,” says the official. “They are able to tell their audience back home that, ‘We got the guys that have been targeting us, and we were able to respond strongly.’”
But the American troops in Iraq, adds the official, are “low-hanging fruit,” and vulnerable to attack by Iran and its Shiite militia allies. Indeed, Iranian commanders have warned for decades that they would respond to any American attack by targeting U.S. forces ringing the region, from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced Friday that the U.S. was sending 3,500 more American troops to the Middle East.
Iran reacted with fury over the death of General Soleimani, who has masterminded an unprecedented expansion of Iranian influence in the past decade, as the Qods Force – the elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that handles operations abroad – marshaled Shiite militia forces from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq to Yemen, to battle Iran’s enemies.
Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday praised General Soleimani’s “lofty status” as a martyr and warned in a tweet that “#SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands” with General Soleimani’s blood.
“The Americans have been scrambling for a time not knowing what to do, but basically watching as those they consider to be their biggest enemies gain more and more influence over the Iraqi state,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“This for them was to perhaps reassert its dominance with air power. But obviously the backlash would lead one to believe it wasn’t a wise move,” says Mr. Mansour.
“It seems some of the more political parts of the American political establishment – the National Security Council, the White House – got a bit excited about all the anti-Iran sentiment coming out of Iraq.”
Media campaign in Iran
Unique among Iranian commanders, General Soleimani – who cut his teeth as a military leader during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s – was the subject of a media campaign devoted to showing him in charge on the front lines against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.
General Soleimani and the Shiite militias he helped to create in Iraq are often credited with swiftly intervening to save Baghdad in mid-2014, when ISIS swept across Iraq. But the continued influence and corruption of those Iran-backed militias – and the role of General Soleimani himself, who brokered the deal that created Iraq’s current government – have in recent months raised anti-Iranian sentiment among Iraqi protesters demanding political reforms.
Iraqi protesters have also bristled at reports that the Iranian general helped orchestrate the tough crackdown and use of snipers against Iraqi protesters that took more than 500 lives.
In response, Iranian consulates in the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala have been attacked and burned multiple times, and the offices of pro-Iranian militias and their political parties torched.
But analysts say the retaliatory U.S. airstrikes on bases of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah on Dec. 29, following the death of the contractor and several rocket attacks by Shiite militias, were seen by many in Iraq as disproportionate, resulting in the breach of the American Embassy and providing evidence of a lack of U.S. political awareness in Iraq.
For example, a senior State Department official, when asked by a journalist about the possible consequences of the missile strikes, said, “We don’t have any fears in this regard.” Yet within hours, the Baghdad embassy was subject to an unprecedented attack, during which U.S. diplomats were in hiding for nearly two days and the walls were daubed with pro-Soleimani slogans.
Iran “set a trap”
“It is another example of U.S. foreign policy being disoriented, as it has always been, regarding Iraq,” says Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Iran or their allies in Iraq, he says, “set a trap” for the U.S. by killing the American contractor, which elicited the missile strike on the Shiite militia – and fanned anti-American sentiment.
“Strategically, this is exactly giving the provocateurs what they wanted, which is turning the United States from an ally that helps Iraq fight its enemies, into a force that is bombing Iraqis,” says Mr. Kadhim.
The result simply tapped into the fact that Iraqis today often reject all foreign influence, American as well as Iranian.
“We have a lot of people [in Washington] who are thinking in jingoistic terms, which is completely detached from the reality on the ground in Iraq,” says Mr. Kadhim. “It’s very popular in Washington to give a narrative that, ‘Oh, we are loved in Iraq,’ and, ‘How dare you say that the Iraqis don’t like us to be there, and we are better than the Iranians.’ This is just nonsense.”
The result is that the death of General Soleimani – the man who has garnered the highest approval ratings in Iran, with polls showing that 2 out of 3 Iranians held a favorable opinion of him – will have an impact, if not on Iran’s ability to exact revenge.
“Without any doubt, it’s a severe blow to the Qods Force, but it’s certainly not a fatal one,” says Mr. Vaez of the International Crisis Group. Iran immediately named General Soleimani’s longtime deputy, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, as the new Qods Force chief.
General Ghaani “might not have the same strategic vision or tactical skills,” says Mr. Vaez. “But the entire network that Soleimani has already laid throughout the region is for sure going to remain functional and will pose a threat to U.S. interests.”