The first thing to say about the U.S. airstrike on Thursday night that killed Qassem Suleimani, the longtime leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, is that President Trump made the right decision.
Taking out Suleimani, who was killed as he traveled in a convoy near the Baghdad airport, was long overdue. In a statement, the Pentagon said Suleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” and blamed him for orchestrating recent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, including a December 27 attack that killed a U.S. government contractor and the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad this week. In addition, he was responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere, and his Quds Force directed terror campaigns and operations throughout the region.
The importance of this strike can’t be overstated. In the hierarchy of the Iranian regime, Suleimani is more powerful than Iran’s president when it comes to foreign policy. He and the Quds Force, which conducts terror operations, assassinations, and bombings outside Iran, report directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Suleimani controlled billions of dollars in terror financing across the globe. His killing marks a major escalation with Tehran that’s been a long time coming, and likely marks a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that we should expect Iran to retaliate. Khamenei has already promised revenge, which will probably take the form of covert actions or terror operations rather than, say, missile launches. But it’s also possible that Iran’s retaliation won’t amount to much. For all its bluster and pernicious meddling in the region, Tehran is weak, and being weak, it is vulnerable to the use of force.
What Operation Praying Mantis Can Teach Us Today
There’s strong historical precedent for using force to pacify Iran. The only thing that has really chastened Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution was Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, in which U.S. forces sunk or severely damaged about half of Iran’s navy. Iran had been at war with Iraq for eight years, and in 1987 began attacking oil tankers and mining the Persian Gulf. When the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine while on a convoy mission to protect reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian attacks, it blew an immense hole in the ship’s hull and nearly sank it.
In response, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Praying Mantis, the largest U.S. surface engagement since the Second World War and the first and only time the time the U.S. Navy has exchanged surface-to-surface missile fire with an enemy. The U.S. struck Iranian warships and oil platforms with coordinated assaults from groups of warships and aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise, destroying two oil platforms and sinking at least three Iranian speedboats, one Iranian frigate, and one fast attack gunboat, as well as severely damaging one other Iranian frigate. The U.S. lost a single helicopter gunship that crashed attempting to evade enemy fire. The whole thing was over in a day.
The success of Operation Praying Mantis, as well as a crushing defeat that same day against Iraqi forces on the al-Faw peninsula, pushed Iranian leadership toward a ceasefire with Iraq later that summer, ending the eight-year conflict. It wasn’t sanctions or the promise of restored diplomatic relations with the U.S. that persuaded Iran to back down, it was the sinking of Iranian ships by U.S. forces in what amounted to an overwhelming battlefield domination on the world stage.
Killing Suleimani Is More Likely To Prevent A War Than Start One
Contrary to the hand-wringing of some liberal media outlets in the wake of the Suleimani strike, President Trump hasn’t started a war with Iran. Rather, it means the United States has recognized and responded to a conflict that’s been going on for some time now, and that Iran has fueled. If anything, the Suleimani strike might well prevent the outbreak of a new Mideast war that was looking increasingly inevitable after eight years of the Obama administration’s feckless foreign policy.
The airstrike itself should be uncontroversial, despite the craven protests of some Democrats now defending Iran. As David French explained on Twitter, the strike was duly authorized, justified, and needed no separate congressional authorization. “American troops are lawfully in Iraq—there by congressional authorization and with the permission of the Iraqi government. Moreover, they have a right of self-defense.”
In any case, the parallel between the killing of Suleimani and Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 is straightforward. If you mine the Persian Gulf and nearly sink a U.S. warship, the United States will destroy your navy. Likewise, if you plan and execute attacks against U.S. troops and outposts, the United States will take out the man behind those attacks with an airstrike.
In 1988, that was the takeaway for Tehran, whose burning ships and oil platforms testified above all to America’s military might and resolve. Faced with more of the same, Iran backed down. Today, faced with the prospect that its top terrorists and military commanders could at any time be taken out by U.S. forces, perhaps Tehran will reconsider its current course and back down once again.
If that’s Iran’s takeaway from the Suleimani strike, then it will have been well worth it.