Soleimani killing: How pivotal for US role in Middle East?

Why We Wrote This

For much of his time in office, President Trump has been known to attack his adversaries on Twitter but not militarily. Suddenly, in foreign capitals around the world, leaders may feel they have to reassess that.

Vahid Salemi/AP
A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, weighed the option of taking out one of Iran’s most prominent and revered military leaders, Qassem Soleimani.

In the end both presidents held back, worried about potential consequences – including a further destabilized Middle East. Now President Donald Trump has taken the very step his predecessors thought better of, with a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

America’s friends and adversaries alike may see the assassination of General Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Qods Force, as further evidence of a shoot-from-the-hip U.S. president, albeit one who has not taken such a step against Iran before. It comes at a pivotal moment in his administration’s foreign policy, with many observers criticizing disarray from North Korea, to Iran and Iraq, to Russia and China.

But the import remains far from clear. Was the strike an alarming one-off move by an unpredictable president, leaders may wonder, or an indication of new resolve in the Middle East?

In an attempt to calm widespread jitters over Mr. Trump’s action, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the phone early Friday with his Chinese and European counterparts, reassuring them that “the United States remains committed to de-escalation” with Iran, the State Department said.

Two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, weighed the option of taking out one of Iran’s most prominent and revered military leaders, Qassem Soleimani, commanding general of the Qods Force, a powerful branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In the end both presidents held back, worried that potential consequences – including a further destabilized Middle East, deeper U.S. military involvement in the region, and even all-out war with Iran – outweighed the satisfaction of removing a figure with American soldiers’ blood on his hands.

Now President Donald Trump has taken the very step Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush thought better of, with the early Friday drone strike that killed General Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

Mr. Trump took to Twitter Friday morning to laud what amounts to the most significant and potentially consequential military action of his presidency.

For much of his time in office, Mr. Trump has been known for attacking his adversaries on Twitter, but not necessarily following through militarily or being inclined to drag the U.S. into longer conflicts. And when he has acted – as when he launched punitive airstrikes in Syria in April 2018, over Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks – it ended up a one-and-done that did not alter Mr. Trump’s overall disengagement from the region.

Now, one strike may have changed that dynamic at a pivotal moment in his presidency – with impeachment hanging over his head, and with some critics faulting his administration’s foreign policy for disarray and lack of strategic thinking, everywhere from Iran and Iraq to North Korea and China.

Some analysts worry the strike could further intensify a conflict with Iran that has maintained a slow burn since Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and began imposing tough economic sanctions on Tehran. America’s friends and adversaries alike may see General Soleimani’s assassination as further evidence of a shoot-from-the-hip U.S. president who remains as unpredictable as ever. Was the strike an alarming one-off move, leaders may wonder, or an indication of new resolve in the Middle East?

No matter which assessment ends up closer to reality, America’s adversaries in particular – first among them Iran – are likely to remain true to form and ultimately take the longer view in responding to the Soleimani killing.

Iran, Russia, and Syria will all condemn the action. But they are also likely to recall that the earlier military action ordered by Mr. Trump in response to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons ultimately did little to change the trajectory of an American withdrawal from the region that has benefitted all three U.S. adversaries.

Mr. Assad – the Syrian president whom the U.S. for a time said “has to go” – is on the verge of reasserting control over almost all of Syrian territory after a devastating civil war. Iran now basically has use of Syria as a corridor for funneling arms to proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. And Russia’s foothold in the Middle East is broader and more secure than in decades.

Still, what makes some call this action a “game changer” in Middle East relations is how the killing of General Soleimani – in a third country to boot – is being widely interpreted as an act of war.

“We have moved from a shadow war and an economic war to a direct act of war by the Trump administration,” says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

In an attempt to calm widespread jitters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the phone early Friday with his Chinese and European counterparts, reassuring them that “the United States remains committed to de-escalation” with Iran, the State Department said.

But as Secretary Pompeo argues to America’s friends that the assassination was a “defensive action” in response to “imminent threats to American lives,” others in the region know from long experience that Iran will not leave General Soleimani’s death unanswered – and that the region is almost certain to bear the brunt of Iran’s ire.

Indeed the Pentagon appeared to be acknowledging that retaliation in some form is likely, announcing Friday that it will deploy an additional 3,500 troops to the region in response to Iran’s vow to seek “severe revenge” for General Soleimani’s death.

That does not mean Iran is likely to seek all-out warfare with a militarily superior U.S. Instead, expect Iran to redouble its efforts that have broadly paid off – strengthening proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere; debilitating America’s Sunni Arab regional allies; and pressing internationally with Russia, China, and even the Europeans that America’s unilateralism poses a global threat.

“Iran has no interest in fighting the United States militarily,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Instead, it will wage its battles economically and politically, seeking to persuade target populations that the costs of fighting Iran exceed the benefits. The Iranians will cast rising global tensions as a consequence of U.S. aggression,” he adds.

Mr. Alterman says to expect “low-level actions” such as attacks against Persian Gulf shipping, fomenting low-scale violence in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, greater pressure on Lebanon, and perhaps above all, amplifying the political turmoil in Iraq that led to the U.S. drone strike on General Soleimani.

Iran is likely to push U.S. forces out of Iraq this year, Mr. Alterman says. Indeed the Iraqi parliament is expected to move to force a U.S. departure, with Mr. Trump suggesting the U.S. could very well leave if Iraq pulls in the welcome mat.

The killing of General Soleimani has had what some analysts are calling a “whiplash” effect among U.S. Gulf allies that had resigned themselves to a U.S. disengagement from the region – but which in a matter of 24 hours have switched to wondering if open conflict with Iran could be in the offing.

After Mr. Trump reversed his decision to retaliate over last year’s downing by Iran of an American drone, and then failed to respond after the drone attacks on Saudi ARAMCO oil fields, Gulf countries had decided Mr. Trump could not be pushed toward confrontation with Iran no matter the provocation.

But now U.S. allies in the region are preparing for a worst-case scenario: that their close association with Washington and their hosting of U.S. military, diplomatic, and commercial hubs make them targets for an Iranian response.

Noting that Tehran’s core interest is “regime survival,” Ms. Maloney of the Brookings Institution says any response to the Soleimani killing will be calibrated with that long-term objective in mind.

The Iranians “are very good at biding their time,” Ms. Maloney says, but “over time [they] have a way of making their feelings known.” 

Taylor Luck contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan.

To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.