The decision to kill Qassem Suleimani when we did and in the context we did is jaw-dropping for a few reasons. Suleimani’s significance was massive and taking him out now will have far greater effects than when the United States killed Osama bin Laden.
Killing OBL was righteous, and the decision to send U.S. special operators into Pakistan to conduct the kill operation was President Barack Obama’s greatest and most honorable moment of his presidency, but by that time, bin Laden was mostly an operational has-been.
In contrast, Suleimani was still on the upswing of his terrorism career, and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemembers and coalition forces, the maiming of thousands of Americans and coalition forces, and the slaughter of millions of others, including civilians across the region. And he was just getting warmed up. He was not a non-state actor with a terrorist following. He was a state-funded and supported official with the resources, political clout, and international legitimacy proffered by states unwilling to join the U.S. in isolating the regime.
As explained by Mike Doran in today’s New York Times, Suleimani built Lebanese Hezbollah and ensured it was armed to the teeth. He extended the imperialistic reach of the Iran regime through organizing, training, and arming militias all over the Middle East. Most proximate to the events yesterday, the Department of Defense blamed Suleimani for ordering the militia mob’s aggression against the U.S. embassy the day before.
The Airstrike Against Suleimani Was Warranted
Suleimani used U.S. airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia that operates in Iraq and killed dozens, as the pretext for mobbing and threatening the American embassy in Baghdad. Although the images of the Iranian-supported militias mobbing the U.S. embassy were harrowing, the embassy and those inside were well defended and prepared. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, “We are very confident that the integrity of that embassy is strong, and it is highly unlikely to be physically overrun by anyone. … There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzzsaw.”
The U.S. airstrikes which killed dozens of Iranian-backed militia was in direct response to a militia attack that killed an American contractor. President Donald Trump, while steering clear of the words “red line,” has repeatedly warned Iran against doing anything that would harm an American. He made that point in response to Iran’s downing of the Global Hawk.
After the strike and during the embassy mobbing, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that the U.S. was preparing to defend against further attacks. “There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks,” Esper said. “If we get word of attacks or some type of indication we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, to protect American lives. The game has changed.” Preemption was, in fact, needed. Confirming the elimination of Suleimani, the Department of Defense issued a statement that said, “General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
It is a common refrain from former Obama officials and those supportive of the Obama foreign policy that pulling out of the Iran deal is the cause of the recent violence. That is an easily disproven myth. The Iran regime was expanding its reach and effectiveness by building more weapons, including missiles, and furnishing them to militia groups during the time Obama administration diplomats sought the Iran deal (JCPOA).
Iran has long been funding Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and is largely responsible for keeping him in power. The same is true for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the prolonging of that humanitarian catastrophe. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been operating with impunity in Iraq and has only gotten bolder, not because of Trump’s decision to get out of the Iran deal, but because the Obama administration’s Iran deal was a symptom of a larger policy that sought to ease tensions with the Iran regime without first expecting the regime to change its behavior. The Obama anti-ISIS campaign even funded Iranian-backed militias inside Iraq, an utterly disastrous plan.
In light of all this, these are the questions we should be asking:
1. How Will the Iran Regime Respond?
The Iran regime is already promising to vindicate Suleimani’s death. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Harsh retaliation is waiting.”
When it comes to America’s and Iran’s militaries going head to head, it’s not even close. Compared to that of the United States, Iran’s military is unsophisticated, but — and this cannot be overemphasized — it’s wrong to underappreciate the damage Iran can do with the missile arsenal it has amassed. Its missile can reach U.S. bases in the region and can extend into Europe. Moreover, a conflict with Iran that escalates into a larger war would not be geographically narrow in scope. Iran’s reach, thanks in large part to Suleimani’s orchestration, extends outside its borders in the form of militias. Hezbollah, recall, even operates in the United States.
2. How Will the Iraqi Government Respond?
The Iraqi government is responsible for providing security of the U.S. embassy, which it failed to do. That was a choice. Moreover, although the Iraqi government officially called on those within its borders not to attack Americans, it also denounced the U.S. retaliatory attacks against the Iran-backed militias and even described those killed as “martyrs.” The United States is lawfully in Iraq, but that situation is precarious. Since Obama withdrew the bulk of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, there has been no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) outlining the legal and diplomatic parameters for a long-term U.S. military presence in the country. If the Iraq government decides to officially submit its sovereignty to the Iranian regime and become its vassal state, there is little the United States can do short of a massive ground invasion and a take-two of the Bush-era overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
3. What Is the United States Prepared To Do Now?
President Trump has been consistent throughout his campaign and his presidency that he does not want to further entangle the United States in Middle East conflicts. He inherited a mess and fully intends to get out, not make the mess worse. The Trump defense strategies clearly articulate the prioritization of great-power competition with China and to a lesser degree Russia, two nations that can and are intent to do far greater harm to the United States. The wars in the Middle East have preoccupied the United States and sapped our focus away from the trajectory of the Chinese Communist Party and the threat it poses outside its borders.
We must find a way to recalibrate the U.S. strategy toward the Middle East so the U.S., with greater reliance on sovereign nation allies, can shrink our military presence and lessen our focus to center our efforts on building military capacity to more credibly deter China and Russia. But the Iranian regime has been intent on becoming a regional hegemony, and the previous administrations did not pursue policies that thwart Iran’s effort, thereby making shifting away from the Middle East miserably difficult. The Obama administration’s policy toward Iran made the Middle East infinitely more volatile. So now, even with a sincere determination to unwind U.S. presence in the Middle East, we find ourselves increasing U.S. troop levels.
Tolerating Iran and the murderous campaign of the IRGC has not brought peace or stability, and the Iran regime miscalculated when it determined Trump would be as tolerant as Obama. Now that Trump has made that miscalculation clear, the goal should be to clearly and credibly communicate that the U.S. does not want to unleash the weight of American military strength against the Iran regime but that we are prepared to do so if Iran continues to threaten Americans. This will be the most effective means to prevent that escalation from unfolding, and Iran should stand down and call off its militias.
If the United States is successful in compelling Iran to back off and deescalating the situation, there is an enormous potential here, especially with the elimination of Suleimani, to begin a new era of stability in the region and to carry out the strategies to regain the advance against China. But if the Iran regime decides it wants war with America over the death of Suleimani, a man who had dedicated his life to killing Americans and other innocents, it appears Donald Trump, the man who ran against wars in the Middle East and by all accounts genuinely hates them, will give them one.