Small Wars Journal

An Argument Against Killing Qasem Soleimani

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 12:29pm

An Argument Against Killing Qasem Soleimani

Alex Deep

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.

Categories: Iran - Iraq

About the Author(s)

Major Alex Deep is a Special Forces officer assigned to Fort Bragg, NC where he currently commands a Special Forces company. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Studies and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and previously taught courses in International Relations and the Politics of the Middle East at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Alex has deployed multiple times in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Syria, and returned from his most recent deployment in November 2019.



Fri, 01/10/2020 - 6:49pm

I respectfully disagree with Major Deep’s analysis.  

Despite general disenchantment with its government, Soleimani was the one charming poster boy that the Islamic Republic could hold up to its citizens. He was that rare individual who could support the killing of his own countrymen (1,500 killed last month), and yet,  remain popular with them. There is no other Iranian official who comes close to such reverence. His loss may unite Iranians in the short term, however, his absence will certainly undermine the regime in the longer run. 

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has faced no natural enemies. Both the enemies it has manufactured over the past 3 decades, and the proxies required to defend it from those supposed enemies, have drained it of both its enormous financial capital and its equally remarkable human capital. This stark realization is growing across the entire Iranian population. Soleimani’s departure may hasten the end of this regime for the regime has lost the one person who’s image of fatherly protection and heroic nationalism could rationalize its prolongation. 

Flank Tracker

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 12:55pm

This particular argument against targeting the Quds Force Commander seems reliant on a simple but entirely errant notion that organic regime change from within Iran is the optimal way to deal with the rouge nation.

Popular support would only grow, as long as Iran is able to attack the "great Satan" and regional allies by capturing both Naval vessels and non-combatant ships, shooting down American surveillance craft, destroying Saudi oil facilities, and extracting tribute from the last administration.

Then on top of that, Shia militias assault and occupy the American Embassy in Baghdad at Soleimani's direction, and at a minimum he has the audacity to fly into Baghdad Airport to spike the football?

With all due respect Sir, everything up and too that point that Soleimani and the Iranian Regime was able to accomplish only endeared the leadership to the Iranian People in their mutual struggle against the "evil empire".  

Killing Soleimani may have Iranian leadership questioning their position, and serves to boost morale here at home as we have been consistently embarrassed in this war with Iran since 1979.

And yes, a Reservist Rifleman can recognize a war even when the experts "can't" or are unwilling to.



Thu, 01/09/2020 - 11:18am

In case you haven’t heard, Iran is not a democracy – just ask the many citizens in Iran’s jails. Soleimani’s “enjoy(ing) the support of 8 out of 10 Iranians” had nothing to do with his position as the head “terrorist,” I’m sure.

I’m sorry, but if I were of Eisenhower’s family, I’d be severely offended to see Ike being compared to one of the leading terrorists in the world. Soleimani had no education or military training and Ike never would have signed a letter threatening the use of the military to remove a sitting president. Presuming that the citizens of Iran actually mourn Soleimani (and not being forced into these public displays) is a far stretch, just as thinking the Viet Cong were actually welcomed by the South Vietnamese in 1971.

The JPOA was a sham, Iran continued its drive towards nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that it has pursued for decades. The previous administration’s billion-dollar payoffs were turned into supporting terrorism, not in helping their own people (and their citizens know it).

To get even more fundamental, Soleimani being responsible for the death of 600 American service personnel is more than enough to permanently remove him – another American family won’t have to be told their loved one isn’t coming home. Is there really any other country that would have stood for this so long and, more importantly, why did we?