An Argument Against Killing Qasem Soleimani
Qasem Soleimani led an organization, which according to Pentagon estimates, killed about 600 American service members in Iraq since 2003. Leaders of other groups similarly responsible for the deaths of Americans have met similar ends: Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and several members of the Haqqani family to name a few. The decision to kill the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force is part of a broader US policy to change Iranian activities that threaten US interests and the forces that work to achieve those interests. Yet in this regard, the United States faces a fundamental misalignment of ends and means. US officials continue to demand that Iran halts its support to Shi’a proxies in the Middle East, its development of more advanced ballistic missiles, and its potential pursuit of nuclear weapons. At the same time, US actions do nothing but embolden and strengthen the domestic political elements in Iran who want to expand those very activities. While Qasem Soleimani is not Franz Ferdinand and World War III is certainly not on the horizon, the United States has again failed to understand that its actions to change Iranian activity will undoubtedly have the opposite effect.
The United States has no equivalent to Qasem Soleimani, so it is difficult for Americans to grasp his importance to Iran as a country and to Iranians as a population. This was a man who many analysts considered the second most powerful person in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and enjoyed the support of eight in ten Iranians according to recent polling conducted through a University of Maryland project. For Americans, imagine if Dwight D. Eisenhower came back from the dead and was put in charge of the US military. From there, imagine that Iran killed him with a roadside bomb while he was visiting deployed service members in Iraq. In that scenario, it seems unlikely that American policy-makers or the American population would opt to change its behavior more in line with Iranian desires. By the way, Dwight Eisenhower’s approval rating at its peak was lower than that of Qasem Soleimani. Not surprisingly, Iranian officials have threatened retaliation rather than acquiescence, and Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and the various Popular Mobilization Forces have promised revenge.
American military operations in Iraq serve multiple purposes in line with US strategic interests: the ongoing fight against the remnants of Da’esh, as a bulwark against the continued expansion of Iranian influence across the Fertile Crescent, and the stability of the region in general, but especially for the trade of hydrocarbons. At the same time, Iraq relies on Iran, and those influenced by Iran, for its own internal political stability and security. After all, the Shi’a dominated Popular Mobilization Forces number between 130,000 and 150,000 fighters, have their own political parties, and receive about $2 billion annually from the Iraqi government. As a mechanism for comparison, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, which the United States views as its most politically and militarily reliable organization within Iraq, boasts about 10,000 fighters and receives about $225 million from the Iraqi government. High profile members of the Iraqi government had already called for a review of its policy vis-à-vis American troop presence in the aftermath of airstrikes against members of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iran’s most zealous proxy in Iraq. Calls for the expulsion of American troops from Iraq will only intensify in the wake of Qasem Soleimani’s death. It will be difficult to fight the remnants of Da’esh and counter Iranian influence in Iraq without a physical presence therein.
Over the past three years, the United States has embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani adds an overt military dimension to what has been primarily an economic and diplomatic affair. An integral part of this policy was the United States renouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and re-imposing sanctions against the Iranian economy and those who do business with Iran. The premise of this policy is simple: the pain will continue until Iran changes its behavior. Whereas the United States originally signed the “nuclear deal” with only Iran’s nuclear program in mind, the “maximum pressure” strategy is more ambitious and seeks to alter Iranian behavior more fundamentally. This includes things that Iran views as vital to its national security, including its ballistic missile program and support to its proxies throughout the region. In reality, senior American officials have been fairly transparent regarding their desire to see “maximum pressure” result in regime change in Iran; the architect of this policy, Ambassador John Bolton, recently tweeted as much.
The economic and military pressure that the United States has exerted on Iran will lead to a change within the Iranian government, but not a change that is beneficial to the United States. Hassan Rouhani was first elected president of Iran with the promise of improving the lives of Iranians by making a deal with the rest of the world concerning its nuclear ambitions. He was then re-elected as he beseeched voters to trust that sanctions relief under the nuclear deal he brokered would improve both the Iranian economy and the daily life of the Iranian people. All the while, his more hardline opponents warned against trusting the United States. To them, the nuclear deal was nothing more than a lie to weaken Iran, and the United States would not live up to its obligations. Regardless of whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a good or bad deal for the United States, Rouhani’s opponents seemed to get the best of the domestic political argument. Now, economic tensions have spilled over to military ones, with the United States killing one of the most popular figures in Iran and a symbol of Iran’s foreign policy and military prowess. Iran holds parliamentary elections in February 2020 and then presidential elections in 2021. It should disturb American policy-makers that Hassan Rouhani’s approval rating is hovering around 40%, whereas former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who presided over the deaths of those 600 American soldiers, has a favorability rating around 52%. If those numbers translate into electoral gains for hardliners in 2020 and the presidency in 2021, then any favorable change to Iranian foreign policy will be even more out of reach.
There is no doubt that Qasem Soleimani was directly responsible for the deaths of Americans and surely had plans for more in the future. His death may feel like justice has been done in some way or perhaps has value in and of itself. After all, killing Osama bin Laden had to be done even if al-Qaeda persisted after the US raid that led to his demise. However, foreign policy is meant to achieve optimal results for the country, and this decision may do quite the opposite. The targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani has jeopardized the American position in Iraq and will likely embolden the more extreme elements of Iranian politics who will use the entire campaign of “maximum pressure” to galvanize support at the polls. Neither of those results are good for the United States.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the US Department of Defense or US Army.