The assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 was impulsive and ill-advised. Soleimani has blood on his hands, but targeting a senior official of another country, on President Trump’s order, has created many dangerous downsides and no upsides.
What was the main objective of killing Soleimani and why would President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo go after the second-most-powerful man in Iran? Was this operation part of Trump and Pompeo’s plan to decapitate the theocratic system regime without calling it “regime change?”
Removing Soleimani from the scene was much more than killing just another “terrorist” leader like Osama Bin Laden or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Did the president believe that Soleimani’s death would force Iran to cry “uncle?”
The assassination has accrued no apparent positive consequences for the Trump administration, the Saudis or the Israelis, other than eliminating a key player who was definitely a thorn in their side.
On the contrary, more and more leaders in Congress are beginning to question the logic of Trump’s action. Several senior administration officials are backtracking on the president’s claim Soleimani was planning to attack four American embassies.
The Europeans also have shunned President Trump’s request to outright abandon the Iran nuclear deal and have called on Washington and Teheran to de-escalate the tensions between them.
Several negative unintended consequences for the United States and for the Middle East have resulted from Soleimani’s killing. Iran has resumed high uranium enrichment and seems to be moving away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iraq is on the verge of formally asking Washington to pull American troops out of the country. Relations between Baghdad and Washington seem to have cooled off considerably.
The ensuing tensions could see a resurgence of terrorism, including ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliated groups. There is a growing nervousness among American Sunni Arab allies that Soleimani’s killing might set a precedent for similar actions in the future.
The recent death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the appointment of Haitham bin Tareq al Said as the country’s new leader is bound to increase uncertainty in the region, especially considering the negotiating role Oman has played in recent years. Some in Israel’s right-wing government are equally concerned about the fall-out from Soleimani’s death on the long-term relations between Israel and Hezbollah and the stability and security of Israel’s northern border.
The history of targeted killing has shown that eliminating a senior leader, no matter how vile, will not remove the threat he represented. The removal of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi from the scene did not end the threat from their terror organizations.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already appointed Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s deputy, as the new head of the Quds Force. As a result of taking out Soleimani, American adversaries and terrorist organizations will view American military and diplomatic personnel across the region as legitimate targets.
The real game-changer in U.S.-Iranian relations is not Soleimani’s killing, but the president’s decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimpose severe sanctions against Iran.
If news reports about the CIA director’s involvement in the decision-making process before Soleimani’s assassination are accurate, Iranians will quickly see his killing as another American plot in the U.S.-Iranian conflict that dates back to the 1953 coup that toppled the duly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Twenty-five years later, Iranians rose up against the Shah and his American benefactors in a game-changing revolution that toppled him and established a theocratic Islamic regime in Iran.
The new revolutionaries’ animus toward the United States was demonstrated in the hostage crisis when 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. American enmity toward Iran continued throughout the 1980s when the United States supported Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran.
Despite the recurring conflict, neither country has resorted to open warfare. Both countries have cooperated in the fight against terrorism after 9/11 and in stabilizing Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Cooperation between the two countries culminated in signing the nuclear deal in 2015, which President Trump scuttled in 2018.
Iran helped curb the spread of radical Sunni ideology across parts of the Muslim world and fought the so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Iran and the United States have pursued their regional military, political and economic interests through their allies and proxies. The two states have operated at cross purposes, but neither has opted for war. If there is a silver lining in the recent tragic turn of events, it is that Washington and Teheran have moved away from the brink of war and opted to take the de-escalation off-ramps they offered each other since Soleimani’s killing.
In order to walk away from the precipice, however, Washington jointly with the EU, Oman and Qatar should seek a diplomatic outcome to tensions between Iran and United States. Negotiations could cover both nuclear and non-nuclear issues, which could lead to a new Middle East 21st century peace deal.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on ResponsibleStatecraft.org.