The killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in an airstrike ordered by Donald Trump is one of those things that make any sane observer wonder what the hell Trump was thinking and what the hell those around him were doing in allowing him to do it.
The strike came at a time when Iraq was already on the brink of an all-out proxy war, and hours after a two-day siege of the US embassy in Baghdad by a mob of PMF militants and their supporters. The Pentagon accused Suleimani of having masterminded the mob attack.
That siege followed US airstrikes on camps run by a PMF-affiliated militia particularly closely aligned with Tehran, which in turn was a reprisal for that militia’s killing of a US contractor in an attack on an Iraqi army base on Friday.
This action is only going to inflame anti-US feelings of both Iraqis and Iranians. The Iraqi government is already under some pressure to ask the US to withdraw its troops and this will likely increase the volume of such calls.
Robin Wright has a profile of Suleimani and why he was such an influential figure and says that this killing is tantamount to an act of war.
Was the U.S. attack an act of war? Douglas Silliman, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq until last winter and is now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told me that the death of Suleimani was the equivalent of Iran killing the commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. “If Iran had killed the commander of U.S. Central Command, what would we consider it to be?” he said.
Murtaza Hussain writes that this action will have long-term, serious, and unpredictable consequences.
The reported airstrike last night has taken this bitter conflict to an altogether new level. The killing of Suleimani, along with several other top Iraqi Shia militia leaders, is the single most significant lethal operation since the joint U.S.-Israeli assassination of Lebanese Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008.
It is also perhaps the most reckless foreign policy action by President Donald Trump since he took office. Unlike Mughniyeh or other nonstate militants that the United States has killed over the years, Suleimani was a ranking official of a foreign government. He was a popular figure among Iranian nationalists whose reputation as a battlefield commander in Iraq and Syria had been publicly promoted by a regime looking to boost its flagging domestic popularity. His killing seems to mark the beginning of direct hostilities between the United States and Iran, with top officials apparently not off-limits for violence. Late last night, the Department of Defense issued a statement claiming responsibility for Suleimani’s killing, saying that he and the Quds Force were “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Based on past precedent, any Iranian response is likely to be asymmetric and carried out by proxy groups, and may also include physical or cyberattacks against critical infrastructure. To a degree not seen in years, U.S. personnel in Iraq may now also be at risk. In the past, directly targeting U.S. troops in the country was seen as taboo given the longstanding Iranian goal of preventing escalation that could lead to all-out war. But with the conflict suddenly turning into a hot war with the top-ranking Iranian as a target, that may well change. The consequences could be painful for both sides.
“The strike is bad news, as it takes off the table any prospect of future dialogue between Iran and the United States,” Esfandiary said. “Suleimani was a popular figure inside Iran and even many Iranians who are against the government are likely to be outraged about the targeting of a high-ranking official of their country. No Iranian leader will be able to spare the political capital to engage with the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future.”
In April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of designating the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization. But the decision to kill such a powerful individual without any apparent idea of what comes next is chillingly reckless. What happens in the coming weeks and months is still a matter of speculation. But it is safe to say that if, as likely, bloodshed in the region immediately escalates, Iraqi civilians will pay the highest price.
While tensions between Iran and the US have been simmering for a long time, the most recent actions were triggered by the killing of a US contractor in Iraq. The line separating a US mercenary from a ‘contractor’ is a very thin one, depending on whether the contractor was carrying out military or paramilitary operations or whether he was an accountant or cook or in some other civilian capacity. But killing a top Iranian military and government official in retaliation for the death of a quasi-mercenary seems like a wildly disproportionate action and can only be interpreted as a deliberate provocation to start a war.
The US says, as it always does, that it is acting to save the lives of Americans and that it was a preemptive strike to prevent future planned attacks on Americans. ‘Saving American lives’ has become the go-to justification for pretty much any act of belligerence. We should all be drearily familiar by now with this rationale that is brought forward. It is always easy to manufacture claims of a future threat, like that of Iraq’s WMDs, claims that are supposedly based on ‘strong intelligence’ that cannot be released but later turns out to be false. It is the flimsiest of all rationales.
But what is bizarre is that the US invades Iraq, keeps it forces there in the face of a hostile and restive local population that has strong ties with its neighbor Iran with whom it shares strong cultural ties, and then claims that Iran, the country right next door, is the one interfering in the region, not the US which sent its troops there from half a world away. This is because the US sees itself as the emperor of the world, having the right to use its military anywhere it wants to achieve any ends it wants and anyone who resists it is seen as the aggressor or a terrorist.
But as usual, this move by Trump will rouse the jingoistic sentiments in the population and create support for him because there is nothing like war to rouse people’s passions, revive patriotic fervor, and rally round the country’s leader. And no doubt that fact was appealing to an increasingly unstable president chafing under the humiliation of having been impeached and heading into an election year.
It is all so sadly familiar.