American assassinations by drone have been routine since the Obama era, but Qasem Soleimani, who was killed while leaving Baghdad airport on 3 January, wasn’t the head of a terrorist organisation but a state official: a major-general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the leader of its Quds Force, the unit responsible for external and clandestine operations. He was a pivotal player in the region and, at times, its most brilliant military strategist. Iran’s clerical leadership may have dreamed of an Iranian sphere of influence – a Shia crescent – but it was Soleimani who built it, patiently and ruthlessly, after becoming head of the Quds Force in 1998. He spent most of his time on the road, ensuring that Iran’s interests were protected in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Gulf. He used violence, but he also understood the art of the deal, and co-operated with the US against the Taliban and Islamic State, even though he regarded America as Iran’s existential enemy for its support of the Shah and Saddam Hussein, and its alliance with Israel.
Soleimani was born in 1957 to a poor family in rural eastern Iran. He joined the 1979 revolution as a young man, and spent much of the following decade fighting in the war with Iraq, the defining experience of his generation. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed by Saddam’s army, which enjoyed the support not only of the Americans but the Arab states, with the exception of Syria. In a hostile region, Soleimani concluded, Iran needed strategic depth – and, above all, a friendly Iraq, which landed in his lap in 2003 when the Americans invaded.
Soleimani was a pragmatic hardliner. He was devoted to the supreme leader and supported the velayat-e faqih, Iran’s system of clerical rule. When students rose up against the regime in 1999, he signed a letter from a group of Revolutionary Guard leaders to President Khatami, telling him that if he failed to crush the revolt by force, they would take matters into their own hands. Yet even his critics respected him. Being abroad for long periods helped him to safeguard his reputation, since he could appear to stay out of the country’s internal political squabbles. He came to embody the nationalism that has sustained the Islamic Republic, in spite of its often brutal authoritarianism, and which has been fed for more than half a century by American threats and humiliation, ever since the CIA-backed coup against Mossadegh in 1953.
The same nationalism and pride that brought about the fall of the shah have in recent years been directed against the Islamic Republic itself, in demonstrations by Iranians fed up with the regime’s abuses – not least the corruption of the Revolutionary Guard, which has exploited American sanctions to gain further control of the economy. Hundreds of protesters were killed last winter by security forces. Soleimani’s assassination has turned Iranian anger back towards the Great Satan. As Patrick Cockburn explains (in the next piece in this issue), Iran’s leaders were astounded by the millions of mourners who turned out in the streets. Thanks to Trump, a regime that had become increasingly estranged from its own people saw extraordinary scenes of collective sorrow and rage. But most Iranians were not there to assert their loyalty to the Islamic Republic: they were there to assert their wounded patriotism, and to pay their respects to a man who, in their eyes, had looked after Iran’s interests in the face of American, Israeli and Saudi aggression, and who had protected them from IS. Even former members of the shah’s government expressed their condolences – and their anger. That American commentators compared the killing of Soleimani, an enemy of Sunni jihadism, to the assassination of Osama bin Laden only added insult, and ignorance, to injury.
To people in the Arab world, especially Sunni Arabs, Soleimani cut a markedly different figure. His attempts to impose Iran’s will in Iraq by creating and sponsoring pro-Iranian militias infuriated not only Sunnis but also nationalist Iraqi Shias. In Syria he presided over Iran’s intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, at incalculable cost to Syrian lives and infrastructure. Even as he faced off against Sunni jihadists, the intervention of the Revolutionary Guard and Hizbullah inside Syria exacerbated the sense of Sunni political disenfranchisement that contributed to the rise of IS. American commentators have frequently referred to the hundreds of American soldiers killed by Soleimani-backed militias in Iraq without asking what the Americans were doing there or why Iran might have interests in a neighbouring country that had previously invaded it. It seemed not to occur to them that most of his victims were Arabs and Muslims. Of course, some Western leftists have paid homage to Soleimani as a kind of Iranian Che Guevara, but he was loathed throughout the Sunni world, large parts of which celebrated the assassination. A Lebanese political scientist wrote on Twitter that Trump had accumulated so much political capital from killing Soleimani that he should run for office in an Arab country.
At his press conference, Trump said that Soleimani should have been killed much sooner, given all the ‘blood on his hands’ – a curious argument from a president who has pardoned American soldiers convicted of war crimes against Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Most generals have blood on their hands, and you don’t make peace with your friends but with your enemies, preferably enemies with the power to make a deal stick. Both Bush and Obama had ruled out killing Soleimani for that reason. He was too important to be eliminated, and had proved his usefulness after the invasion of Afghanistan, when he worked with the US to oppose the Taliban. He’d even briefly contemplated a fundamental recasting of relations with Washington, until Bush placed Iran in the ‘axis of evil’ alongside North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. Obama, too, recognised Soleimani as an adversary who might eventually become a partner, if not an ally.
Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who lobbied for Soleimani’s assassination against the advice of Trump’s military counsellors, aren’t interested in establishing a relationship of mutual respect and recognition with the Islamic Republic. Trump’s actions towards Iran – withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, imposing new and punitive sanctions (intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to ‘zero’), designating the Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organisation, and now assassinating Soleimani – point to a desire not only for regime change but total capitulation. The goal is a regional order in which Israel maintains control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has the exclusive right to nuclear weapons, and Saudi Arabia is given a free hand in Yemen and Bahrain. Iran’s real crime isn’t terrorism or its interference in Syria, but its wish to be recognised as a regional power. Negotiations, as Trump and Pompeo see it, are for sissies; Iran only understands the language of force. As neoconservatives used to say at the start of America’s invasion of Iraq, ‘Boys go to Baghdad: real men go to Tehran.’
Trump isn’t about to go to Tehran, not yet. For now, he is content to attack Iran inside Iraq, just as Iran is content to attack American interests in Iraq. (Seventeen years after the invasion, Iraq remains a theatre of war between its not-so-former occupier and its most powerful neighbour.) But those who imagined that Trump would oversee an American retreat from the Middle East should have been disabused of that illusion. While he ran on a promise to end America’s wars, he now seems determined to keep troops in Iraq, especially after the Iraqi parliament responded to Soleimani’s assassination by asking American forces to leave. Soleimani paid with his life for insulting Trump. ‘There is not one night we sleep without thinking of you,’ Soleimani said in July 2018 on Iranian television. ‘We are near you where you don’t expect us.’ After the US embassy in Baghdad was stormed by pro-Iranian militias, Khamenei told Trump: ‘You can’t do anything.’
Trump, who wasn’t moved to respond when Saudi Aramco was attacked last September (fracking means America no longer depends on Saudi oil), couldn’t allow these insults to go unchallenged. If there’s one thing Trump can’t tolerate, it’s defiance, especially when it comes from a non-white person. The left often describes Trump’s rule as neofascist, but the more accurate description would be neo-infantilist, the tyranny of the child who imagines himself to be omnipotent. What’s frightening about the assassination of Soleimani isn’t that Trump failed to consult Congress, as if adherence to this protocol, mostly honoured in the breach, would have redeemed the decision (the House Intelligence chairman, Adam Schiff, simply said: ‘The world is better off without him’). Nor is it that Trump failed to present any evidence for his claim that Soleimani was planning attacks against Americans: such flimsy statements are very much in the American imperial tradition. Nor is it his lack of prudence in targeting a foreign government’s top official, though this raises the possibility that other states might follow suit.
What’s frightening is that the attack destroyed any hope of resetting US-Iranian relations or preserving Iran’s commitment to Obama’s nuclear agreement. Trump’s hostility to the multilateral deal, which he falsely claimed was a political and financial hand-out to Iran, was no secret. But the Europeans had been scrambling to preserve it since America turned its back. After the Soleimani assassination, Khamenei announced that Iran was no longer bound by any limits on uranium enrichment.
The ballistic missiles fired by Iran at two American bases in Iraq were a face-saving measure; there were no casualties (by Iranian design, according to some reports). But even if this highly restrained response is Iran’s final retaliation for Soleimani, which seems doubtful, the unravelling of the nuclear deal means that Iran can pursue enrichment more rapidly and with less oversight – and that a future confrontation, possibly a violent one, is all but assured. The Soleimani killing was designed to strike against the vision of a diplomatic resolution to the more than forty-year-old conflict between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
As the Iranians vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, Trump became more intoxicated by his own threats of violence against Iran. Was he trying to scare the Iranians or baiting them? I was in Beirut when he threatened to eliminate 52 sites of Iranian cultural heritage, one for each of the Americans held hostage by Iran between 1979 and 1981. Even people who were pleased at Soleimani’s death seemed apprehensive: Hizbullah, the most powerful party in Lebanon, is Iran’s cherished ally. On 6 January its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech about Soleimani’s death from his bunker. It was broadcast on al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV channel, to a gathering of thousands of supporters. Nasrallah said that the ‘resistance axis’ would respond to the assassination by fulfilling Soleimani’s ambition to drive all American forces from the region, starting with Iraq. But what was most striking, and most surreal, was his insistence that American civilians were not to be harmed: only military targets were legitimate. Compared to Trump, Nasrallah sounded like a ‘just war’ theorist.
The language of violence, a crucial aspect of Trump’s rhetorical arsenal, is one expression of the superpower privilege that defines the American presidency. When the Saudis murdered and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, Trump denied that Mohammed Bin Salman had ordered the killing. With US support, Israel is able to maintain an enigmatic discretion about Mossad assassinations, such as the 2008 killing of the Hizbullah military leader Imad Mughniyeh. In the American ‘war on terror’, killing baddies (invariably Muslims) and then triumphantly claiming responsibility has become a presidential prerogative. Trump, who boasted that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue without losing votes, takes special pleasure in this. It’s his way of saying that Americans have sovereign power over life and death.
During the clashes in Iraq that led up to Soleimani’s assassination, few American commentators bothered to note that it was Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq that got us here in the first place. Had it not been for the 2003 invasion, Iran would not have been able to turn Iraq into a client state, or to organise pro-Iranian militias to maintain its influence there. There would have been no Islamic State (IS have hailed Soleimani’s killing as an act of ‘divine intervention’). For most Americans, the story of the assassination began when Iranian-backed militias killed an American contractor in Iraq earlier this month, and then stormed the US embassy. That the Iranians have resorted to asymmetrical warfare because of crippling sanctions imposed by America is hardly mentioned. Not surprisingly, the most tenacious champions of Trump’s decision have been the neoconservatives, from John Bolton to Paul Wolfowitz, who took us to war in Iraq. In the National Review, John Yoo, author of the torture memos, defended the legality of the assassination; Thomas Friedman predicted in the New York Times that Iranians might one day name a street in Tehran after Trump.
But these beneficiaries of collective amnesia are hardly alone in praising Trump, and even his liberal critics have questioned the attack largely on procedural grounds. ‘War is the health of the state,’ the antiwar critic Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918. ‘It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.’ Iranian-Americans returning home from their holidays were detained for questioning at the border. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was barred from entering the US, where he was scheduled to address the UN Security Council. On American television, the subject of whether to remove Trump by impeachment has been eclipsed by chatter about the ‘monster’ Trump removed in Baghdad. Trump’s popularity is greater than ever, even if a slight majority of Americans still disapprove of his Iran policy.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Trump gloated that the Iranian missile strikes had failed to produce any American casualties. Iran, he said, appeared to be standing down. In Tehran, meanwhile, people were joking that ‘if you kill one of us, we’ll kill fifty of ourselves,’ an allusion to the dozens of mourners killed in a stampede as they followed Soleimani’s funeral procession. The crash of a Boeing jet over Iran, in which 176 passengers were killed, has only increased anxieties. The fact that the attack appears to be the result of an Iranian missile is little consolation; for many Iranians it raises memories of Iran Air Flight 655, downed by the USS Vincennes in 1988. Khomeini sued for peace with Iraq shortly after. Trump is savouring his victory for now. US foreign policy pundits have praised him for re-establishing deterrence with Iran. But Iranian policy is driven by strategic aims rather than impulses, and Trump’s self-congratulation may prove short-lived. How will he respond if Iran hits back harder?