If you study the military record of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, you’ll see both why U.S military and political leaders feared him, yet did not wish him dead.
The embodiment of America’s stance was President George W. Bush. In January 2008, Bush was informed he had a real-time opportunity to kill Soleimani as he attended a meeting in Syria. Soleimani was known to U.S. intelligence as the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds force, a special operations command with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, akin to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operation Command. Soleimani was known to have played a leading role in nurturing the anti-American insurgency that bled U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Bush was not soft on terrorism or Iran. He knew that upwards of 600 U.S. soldiers had been killed by Iraqi militias sponsored by Soleimani. But the 43rd president also had bruising experience with geopolitical reality: the fiasco of his Iraq invasion. Bush knew better than anyone that, just as eliminating Saddam Hussein unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and terrorism that the United States could not control, so “taking out” Soleimani might have unforeseen bloody consequences for U.S. interests.
Oft-accused of being dim, Bush had actually learned a hard lesson by the end of his failed presidency that Trump may yet absorb: violently removing an enemy can create far larger problems than it solves. Twelve years ago, Bush prudently passed on killing Soleimani.
Last week, Trump did not. The president chose to do what the Israel’s Mossad and its sophisticated assassination apparatus, had considered and rejected on multiple occasions. With little deliberation, Trump pulled the trigger.
Was Soleimani assassinated, that is to say, killed for arbitrary political reasons? Or was he the victim of a “targeted killing,” meaning he was a legitimate target of war?
The Defense Department said he was “actively developing plans” to attack Americans. An anonymous source, probably a senior CIA official, told the New York Times the evidence for that claim was “razor-thin.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NBC’s Chuck Todd that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on American targets when he was killed. When CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed him on how imminent, Pompeo said “this is not something that’s relevant.”
Washington chatter aside, Soleimani was a guest of the Iraqi government, which is a military ally of the U.S. government. Iraqi government documents leaked by an anonymous source to The Intercept show that Soleimani wielded wide influence in Iraqi affairs, often with top officials who were also on good terms with the United States. In other words, he was not unwelcome.
Iraqi Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told parliament on Sunday that Soleimani came to Iraq to respond to a diplomatic note from Saudi Arabia. While bitter enemies, the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic, were privately negotiating steps to pacify the region, which has been roiled by anti-Iranian and anti-American demonstrations.
“I was supposed to meet Soleimani in the morning the day he was killed,” Mahdi said, according to news reports. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi to Iran.”
The Iraqi parliament proceeded to unanimously disinvite the 5,000 U.S. troops now stationed in the country. The parliament did not set a deadline for their departure, and scores of non-Shia parliamentarians did not vote.
Why Kill Soleimani?
Soleimani was not feared by U.S. (and Israeli and Saudi) policymakers because primarily he was a terrorist (though he sometimes used terror tactics). Mostly the U.S. and allies feared him because he successful. According to journalist Yossi Mellman, Israeli intelligence assessed him as “a daring and talented commander, despite the considerable number of mistakes in his assessments and failed operations in the course of his career.”
First, Soleimani played a key role in driving U.S. occupation forces out of Iraq. As Al-Quds commander he presided over the creation of anti-American militias in 2003 that mounted deadly attacks on the U.S. forces seeking to establish a pro-American government.
One Iraqi militia leader, Qais al-Khazali, who debriefed U.S. intelligence officers in 2008, said he had “a few meetings” with Soleimani and other Iranian officials of similar rank. According to Khazali, Soleimani did not take part in the operational activities–providing weapons, training or cash. He left those tasks to deputies or intermediaries.
Under Iranian tutelage, these militias specialized in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill upwards of 600 soldiers in the U.S. occupation forces, according to general David Petraeus. Soleimani’s attacks–along with the manifest failure of U.S. goals to reduce terrorism and spread democracy–contributed to President Obama’s politically popular decision to withdraw most U.S. troops in 2011.
Forcing the U.S. military out of Iraq was a priority for the government in Tehran, and Soleimani helped achieve it.
Nemesis of ISIS
Second, Soleimani played a key role in driving ISIS out of Iraq–a victory in which the United States ironically helped boost his reputation.
In this battle, Soleimani took advantage of U.S. vulnerability, not hubris. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic State in western Iraq six years ago, Tehran was just as alarmed as Washington. The Sunni fundamentalists of ISIS regard the Shia Muslims of Iran and Iraq as infidels, almost as contemptible as Christians and Jews.
After the regular Iraqi armed forces collapsed, Iraqi Ayotollah Ali Sistani blessed the creation of Shia militias to save the country. Sistani’s fatwa empowered Iran to mobilize and expanded Soleimani’s existing militia network. The Iranian-sponsored fighters, along with the Kurdish pesh merga, proceeded to do most of the bloody street fighting that drove ISIS out of Mosul, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities.
As Soleimani moved about openly in Iraq, U.S. commanders did not attack him because he did not attack them. Sometimes, pro-American and pro-Iranian soldiers even fought side by side. Thanks to this tacit U.S.-Iranian cooperation that neither country cared to publicly acknowledge, ISIS was expelled from Iraq into Syria by 2017.
In Iran, Soleimani emerged as a hero in the fight against the deadliest religious fanatics on the planet, especially after ISIS had carried out a terror attack in Tehran on June 2017 that killed 12 people.
In Iraq, the rout of ISIS enhanced the prestige of Soleimani and the Iranian-backed militias. Some of their leaders entered politics and business, drawing complaints about–and demonstrations against—heavy-handed Iranian influence. Many Iraqis grew unhappy about Iran’s new influence, but success made Soleimani an indispensable security partner for the embattled government in Baghdad. That’s why he visited Iraq last week.
Besting the CIA
Third, Soleimani helped defeat ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria’s civil war. In 2015, President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were losing ground to Sunni fundamentalist forces funded by the CIA and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies. The CIA wanted to overthrow Assad. Iran feared losing its ally in Damascus to a hostile anti-Shia regime controlled by al-Qaeda. Obama feared another Iraq and refused to commit U.S. forces.
Soleimani brought in Iranian advisers and fighters from Hezbollah, the Shia militia of Lebanon which Iran has supported since the 1980s. With help from merciless Russian bombing and Syrian chemical attacks, the Iranian-trained ground forces helped Syria turn the tide on the jihadists. The CIA, under directors Leon Panetta, John Brennan and Mike Pompeo, spent $1 billion dollars to overthrow Assad. They had less influence on the outcome than Soleimani.
The net effect of Soleimani’s three victories—abetted by U.S. crimes and blunders—was, for better or worse, to bolster Iranian influence across the region. From Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the West, Iran gained political ground, thanks to Soleimani. He perfected the art of asymmetric warfare, using local proxies, political alliances, deniable attacks, and selective terrorism to achieve the government’s political goals.
(Soleimani, it is worth noting, had no record of attacking non-uniformed Americans. While Pompeo said that Soleimani “had inflicted so much suffering on Americans,” it is a fact that not a single American civilian was killed in an Iranian-backed terror attack between 2001 to 2019.)
Iran’s cumulative successes provoked dismay Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh). In the course of the 21st century, Iran overcome international isolation and to actually gain, not lose, advantage to its regional rivals. He also became a media personality in the regime using selfies from the battlefield to promote an image of an accessible general who liked to rub shoulders with his men.
Along the way, Iran maintained a terrible record on human rights at home, persecuting journalists, bloggers, and women who spurn the hijab. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security didn’t kill Americans but it did take a number of hostages, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Across the region, Iran’s ambitions stirred up widespread opposition from secular, feminist, and nationalist movements that reject the theory and practice of Iranian theocracy.
These non-violent movements, however, never advocated that the United States attack their country. They are not welcoming Soleimani’s death, and they are unlikely to support the U.S. (or Israeli) attacks in the coming conflict. Quite the contrary. The anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iran and Iraq are over for the foreseeable future. Iranians and Iraqis who publicly supported the United States and opposed the mullahs, have been silenced. In death as in life, Soleimani had diminished the U.S. influence in the Middle East.