A Discussion of Soleimani’s Assassination

President Trump shocked the world earlier this year when he assassinated one of Iran's top military officials. Was this action a benefit or a detriment to American interests in the Middle East? Managing Editor Simon Gilbert and Staff Writer Grace Hickey discuss.
James DailManaging Editor

FOR

Stability--in the realm of foreign affairs, almost nothing is more sacred. And in the Middle East, nothing is more elusive. In the century since Great Britain and France divided up the region into states and mandates, that concept has rested on top of an insurmountable promontory, with diplomats, presidents and ambassadors acting as the foolhardy mountain-climbers. Yet stability is not something that can merely be wished for. Some states within this arrangement, by virtue of their character and worldview, will never be forces for tranquility. One such state is Iran.

Iran, not by its circumstances--which were presumably conducive for peace after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action--but by its very structural foundation is a rogue state, a malevolent force that reaches throughout the Levant. In the past five years alone, it has trafficked narcotics through Hezbollah to fund terrorism; [1] it has developed a more potent conventional missile program; [2] it has propped up the worst genocidaire of the 21st century to increase its reach in the Levant [3]. These exploits largely occurred because the Obama administration, in its incompetence and naivete, refused to apply pressure to the Islamic Republic during JCPOA negotiations. And even after all that enabling, Iran still may have enough enriched uranium for the bomb by the end of the year. It makes one wonder, considering the length of time required to enrich enough uranium, if the Iranians were even following the deal at all [4].

As such, the question of killing Qassem Soleimani--who coordinated Iran’s militias in Iraq and Syria--should not be: “will this make the Levant unstable?”. Rather, the question becomes: “how much more unstable will the Levant become without Soleimani?” Perhaps the first example one should look to is Iran’s response. Yes, they did shell an American airbase in Iraq, giving 64 American soldiers brain injuries [5]. But considering the United States took out the top Iranian military leader, this retaliation seems rather subdued. However, this incident’s importance was not in American injuries. Iran both foolishly and  immorally refused to ground passenger planes during the onslaught, shooting down a jet in the process. And because Iran is a rogue state, they predictably tried to cover it up from their citizens, which led to more protests against the regime (which were already occurring in earnest before the United States killed Soleimani) [6]. Immediately, it seems at least, Iran suffered more from their own response than the U.S.

"Iran, not by its circumstances . . . but by its very structural foundation is a rogue state, a malevolent force that reaches throughout the Levant."

Another issue to consider is the nature of Iran’s plotting against the U.S. in the medium and long run. One may argue that because of Soleimani’s assassination, Iran has begun plotting a major retaliation in their sphere of influence that will take place over the ensuing months and years. To that, I ask when is Iran not plotting such an attack? Is there a single moment in the entire history of the Islamic Republic that Iran was not explicitly working against the U.S. and toward their own regional hegemony? Moreover, where is the coordinator of such policy now? He is dead. We should not decontextualize who Soleimani was by merely describing him as a “general.” He led the Quds Force, which fights for Assad, exacerbated the already tumultuous Iraq War, and supported Hezbollah’s grip on power in Lebanon, among other things [7]. Iran will have a much harder time coordinating a sophisticated response as they deal with a crisis of leadership.

An important wrinkle that must be noted is that it would have been strategically unwise to kill an Iranian leader simply because he was a “bad guy.” If that were the standard, then surely most of Iran’s leadership deserves to be killed, as well as many other despots and tyrants throughout the world. That cannot be an American foreign policy. However, the Trump administration was right to kill Soleimani not because he was bad, nor because he was just a menace to stability, but because the upsides of taking him out far outweighed the potential downsides. Iran will always be a destabilizing force with the current regime in power, but assassinating other key figures in the regime or waging war against it is not a wise option at this juncture. The strike was a risk--a calculated one, but a risk nonetheless. Foreign policy always demands such decisions. There is no such thing as arbitrage in international politics. 

Ultimately, this risk will likely pay off. Iran may respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but not with any action they would not have taken had he lived. The Levant will continue to be a destabilized region as long as the Islamic Republic exists as it does now. Stability has never hinged upon the life or death of Soleimani alone. Anyone who attributes Iran’s future aggressiveness--and there will be future aggressiveness--to his assassination must think that history began in 2020 or is selectively blind and deaf. Soleimani’s importance was oddly paradoxical: Iran’s expansionist policy will exist with or without him, yet he was instrumental in the implementation of such policy. Good riddance to him, because he was an evil, destabilizing force. The Middle East will likely be safer without him. His death marks one step closer to the end of the Islamic Republic’s imperialist and theocratic tyranny.

Simon GilbertManaging Editor

AGAINST

When it comes to president Trump, a good rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected. Yet, on January 3 of this year, the Trump administration still managed to shock the world with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a top-ranking Iranian general [8]. A contentious debate has followed over whether the move was a strategic one. This question, like many on the international stage, is more complex than it initially may seem. Qasem Soleimani was undeniably a monster. He can be directly implicated in the deaths of many American military personnel, as well as thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians [9]. On an individual level, there is an innate satisfaction in the fact that such a terrible person has been brought to justice. 

Yet, the United States can not afford to craft its foreign policy around the innate feelings of individuals. It must always focus on the big picture: both the short-term strategic consequences and long term policy implications of the assassination prove that it was not a wise decision. The Trump administration’s arguments in favor of the assassination are weak and unclear. Any potential for an American strategic advantage is far outweighed by evidence predicting that America will suffer losses as a result of the attack.

A chief danger of the attack is the precedent it sets. The basic framework for justice that we understand generally cannot be used in the context of International Relations [10]. Despite the Trump administration’s arguments, there is no evidence that Soleimani was an imminent threat; the military had no knowledge of him planning an attack on Americans [11]. This makes the murder a preventative rather than a preemptive one. In the international community, preemptive attacks are defined as attacks against a real, imminent threat, and are considered legitimate. Preventative attacks are not backed by hard evidence of true threat, and are thus seriously looked down upon. Deciding to kill Soleimani despite this lack of evidence sets a precedent for the random assassination of military and political leaders throughout the world. Richard Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that “a world of regular preventive actions would be one in which conflict were far more prevalent. It is not in our interest to lower the norm against preventive attacks lest they become much more frequent [12].”

"[T]he United States cannot afford to craft its foreign policy around the innate feelings of individuals."

In addition to this, the immediate results of the attack are also unfavorable. A key issue is Iran’s involvement with non-state actors throughout the Middle East. The assassination of Soleimani may have the effect of deterring Iran from conflict escalation, but these non-state actors are another story. M.I.T. Professor Dr. Narang argues that we can’t only consider Iran to be “a unitary, rational actor” when we think about deterrence because groups and individuals like Hezbollah that are backed by Iran don’t fit that mold [13]. In fact, Hezbollah has already promised  to escalate push-back against American troops in the region [14]. Furthermore, any assurance of deterring Iran is not set in stone. Many experts argue that the assassination will trigger a “tit for tat” cycle in which each country gradually escalates violence while waiting for the other to cave [15]. Another unfavorable result of the attack is the American troop deployment that came as a direct result of the assassination. Immediately after Soleimani’s death, the United States sent roughly 4,500 troops to Iraq and Kuwait in preparation for Iranian retaliation [16]. This means that thousands of  American service people have been put in imminent danger who otherwise would not be. This continued funneling of troops and resources into the Iranian region means that the United States cannot use them in response to other pressing threats, such as Venezuela, North Korea, and possibly even China and Russia [17]. Hass argues that the increased American troop presence will also spur the securitization of other countries and will threaten non-state actors in the Middle East [18]. In a region that is already high in tension, any increased securitization has the immediate ripple effect of less military stability.  Just what are all of these risks and unfavorable results for? Iran has already replaced Soleimani with Gen. Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi, who is “taking active measures to ensure [he] is able to continue pursuing the regional strategy [Soleimani] championed [19].” It appears that killing Soleimani  made no difference. What then could the goal be? Does Trump want Iran to renegotiate their nuclear deal? Or is he looking for a complete regime change? As Hass argues, neither of these outcomes is likely, [20] and the empirics of regime change do not look good for decreasing conflict.  The assignation of Qasem Soleimani was a massive foreign policy misstep. The United States’ true focus ought to be reinstating some form of the former Iran Nuclear Deal. A nuclearized Iran is an international threat that outweighs any possible benefit of pulling out of the deal in order to constrain Iran in the short term. Any progress the United States makes in the Middle East will be minor in comparison to the mass scale of environmental and human destruction that could occur if the Iranian government were to successfully develop nuclear weapons. While it is very unlikely that Iran would use nuclear weapons against other Middle Eastern powers, it would certainly use them to deter the United States, and the risk of accidental launch is not insignificant [21]. We can only hope that the Trump administration will change its plans in Iran, and change them soon. 
Grace HickeyStaff Writer

Sources and Notes

[1] https://www.politico.com/interactives/2017/obama-hezbollah-drug-trafficking-investigation/
[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/how-a-quantum-change-in-missiles-has-made-iran-a-far-more-dangerous-foe/2020/01/07/63020a0c-30c7-11ea-9313-6cba89b1b9fb_story.html
[3] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2019-08-16/syria-changed-iranian-way-war
[4] https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/iran/.premium-israeli-intel-iran-will-have-enough-uranium-for-nuke-by-year-s-end-1.8401442
[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/world/middleeast/iraq-iran-brain-injuries.html
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/26/world/middleeast/iran-plane-crash-coverup.html
[7] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/who-are-iran-s-secretive-quds-forces-n1110156
[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50991810
[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/04/world/middleeast/qassim-suleimani-deter-iran.html
[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/04/world/middleeast/qassim-suleimani-deter-iran.html
[11] https://www.cfr.org/report/evaluating-trump-administrations-iran-policy
[12] https://www.cfr.org/report/evaluating-trump-administrations-iran-policy
[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/04/world/middleeast/qassim-suleimani-deter-iran.html
[14] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/01/23/how-the-quds-force-is-filling-qassem-soleimanis-shoes-102820
[15] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/07/trumps-rationales-soleimani-killing-are-falling-apart/
[16] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/06/world/middleeast/troops-iran-iraq.html
[17] https://www.cfr.org/report/evaluating-trump-administrations-iran-policy
[18] https://www.cfr.org/report/evaluating-trump-administrations-iran-policy
[19] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/01/23/how-the-quds-force-is-filling-qassem-soleimanis-shoes-102820
[20] Hass
[21] https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR310.html

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