NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 5th, 2020

What drove Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Suleimani?

In the ear­ly hours of Fri­day morn­ing, a pil­lar of flame unex­pect­ed­ly rose over the tar­mac at Bagh­dad Air­port. At the blaz­ing epi­cen­ter of the explo­sion was a man who – until that moment – was per­haps the most influ­en­tial geopo­lit­i­cal fig­ure in the Mid­dle East, the comman­der of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen­er­al Qasem Soleimani.

General Suleimani was one of Iran's top soldiers

Gen­er­al Soleimani was one of Iran’s top sol­diers (Pho­to: Sayyed Sha­hab, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Soleimani had many pow­er­ful ene­mies, but the killers soon made them­selves known. The Pen­ta­gon took respon­si­bil­i­ty for the bomb­ing, say­ing that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump him­self had ordered Soleimani’s death.

This is a shock­ing esca­la­tion in a region where the del­i­cate bal­ance of pow­er and peace has, in many cas­es, rest­ed on the shoul­ders of the Iran­ian gen­er­al.

Soleimani mold­ed Iran­ian pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East, a role that saw him trav­el to Iraq, Syr­ia, Lebanon and beyond to advise and direct a pletho­ra of mili­tias, armies and polit­i­cal groups towards the goal of increas­ing Iran’s geopo­lit­i­cal pow­er.

Soleimani became the leader of the Quds Force – the for­eign affairs branch of Iran’s Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps, com­pa­ra­ble to the CIA – in 1998 and played a key role in orga­niz­ing Shia mil­i­tants around the region.

He is known to have advised Lebanon’s Hezbol­lah orga­ni­za­tion in their war against Israel and pro­vid­ed sup­port for Shia mil­i­tants in their vio­lent resis­tance to Amer­i­can forces after the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq.

When the civ­il war in Syr­ia broke out, he orga­nized a pipeline of weapons and fight­ers to sup­port the mur­der­ous dic­ta­tor­ship of Bashar al-Assad.

Soleimani came to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence with the explo­sive expan­sion of the Islam­ic State group (ISIS) across north­ern Iraq in 2014. Before the U.S. and its allies orga­nized to take on the rapid­ly expand­ing jihadist “caliphate,” Soleimani him­self was on the ground, ral­ly­ing and advis­ing the Iraqi and Kur­dish para­mil­i­taries that would do the vast major­i­ty of the hard fight­ing in the war.

Soleimani’s strate­gic genius and tal­ent for lan­guages made him a key asset in unit­ing a diverse range of eth­nic and polit­i­cal groups against the threat of ISIS.

And now he is dead.

The killing is the lat­est and most dra­mat­ic in a series of esca­la­tions in bal­loon­ing con­flict for pow­er and influ­ence that pits Iran against the U.S. and its region­al allies (such as Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel).

The con­flict – which began to accel­er­ate after Don­ald Trump abrupt­ly aban­doned the Iran nuclear deal – has seen both sides use proxy forces from Syr­ia, Iraq and Yemen, influ­enc­ing sand pro­long­ing con­flicts that have tak­en thou­sands of lives.

In recent months, ten­sions have ratch­eted up even fur­ther, as the two sides have tak­en increas­ing­ly bold mea­sures against each oth­er.

In May and June of last year the U.S. and Sau­di Ara­bia blamed a series of attacks on oil tankers on Iran. In Sep­tem­ber, drones launched by an Iran­ian ally struck an oil refin­ery inside Sau­di Ara­bia. A month lat­er, an Iran­ian oil tanker was struck by a mis­sile off the Sau­di coast.

Towards the end of 2019, the sit­u­a­tion devolved fur­ther.

In mid-Novem­ber, a cache of Iran­ian intel­li­gence doc­u­ments was leaked to The Inter­cept, reveal­ing the broad scope of Iran­ian ambi­tions in the Mid­dle East and aggra­vat­ing lead­ers from both sides.

Decem­ber saw the U.S. encour­age Iraqis protest­ing against Iran­ian influ­ence, as well as anti-gov­­ern­­ment pro­test­ers inside Iran itself.

The last days of the year saw a cas­cad­ing series of esca­la­tions:

The death of Gen­er­al Soleimani moves the sit­u­a­tion into a new par­a­digm. It is the first exam­ple of the U.S. direct­ly attack­ing a mem­ber of the Iran­ian armed forces. Iran’s Supreme Leader Aya­tol­lah Ali Khamanei (report­ed­ly a per­son­al friend of Soleimani) today vowed “force­ful revenge” against the U.S.

Iran's Supreme Leader comforts relatives of General Soleimani. The two men were reportedly personal friends.

Iran’s Supreme Leader com­forts rel­a­tives of Gen­er­al Soleimani. The two men were report­ed­ly per­son­al friends. (Pho­to: Fars News Agency, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Why is all this hap­pen­ing now?

Trump has repeat­ed­ly said that, going into an elec­tion year, a war with Iran would be “a pos­i­tive from a polit­i­cal stand­point” and “the only way to get elect­ed,” espe­cial­ly since the Com­man­der in Chief “has absolute­ly no abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate.”

Except he wasn’t dis­cussing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion; Trump’s entire career has shown that that lev­el of self-aware­­ness is entire­ly beyond him. These state­ments are in fact from 2012, an elec­tion year in which Trump believed that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma would cyn­i­cal­ly start a war with Iran to improve his polit­i­cal for­tunes.

Of course, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma did not go to war with Iran, instead opt­ing to bring togeth­er a coali­tion of inter­na­tion­al part­ners (includ­ing Chi­na, Rus­sia and the Euro­pean Union) for years of painstak­ing of nego­ti­a­tion with the Islam­ic Repub­lic over its nuclear pro­gram. This effort result­ed in the 2015 Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action (JCPOA), com­mon­ly known as the Iran nuclear deal, one of the most impres­sive acts of inter­na­tion­al diplo­ma­cy this cen­tu­ry.

When Don­ald Trump took over in 2017, he began gut­ting all that work.

Pre­fer­ring to dom­i­nate the spot­light, he aban­doned Obama’s approach of mul­ti­lat­er­al con­sen­­sus-build­ing between expe­ri­enced diplo­mats, and tried to con­duct per­son­al diplo­ma­cy one-on-one with the world’s lead­ers, from his enor­­mous­­ly-hyped meet­ings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to the Sin­is­ter Glow­ing Orb inci­dent with the dic­ta­tors of Sau­di Ara­bia and Egypt.

And of course, there is Trump’s mys­te­ri­ous deter­mi­na­tion to have nobody else in the room while meet­ing with Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s fond­ness for dic­ta­tor­ships does not extend to Iran. From the begin­ning of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign there were obvi­ous signs that he would take an aggres­sive pos­ture to the Islam­ic Repub­lic, from the role of Michael Fly­nn – a vir­u­lent­ly islam­o­pho­bic and bel­liger­ent for­mer gen­er­al – in his elec­tion team to his racist efforts to ban all Mus­lims from enter­ing the U.S., to the promi­nent role of neo­con­ser­v­a­tive, islam­o­pho­bic war hawks in his ever-chang­ing cab­i­net.

It makes per­fect sense that this esca­la­tion is hap­pen­ing at the start of what most Amer­i­cans hope is Trump’s last year in office. Trump made clear with his 2012 state­ments that he believes in the “ral­ly round the flag” phe­nom­e­non – the idea that vot­ers will sup­port an incum­bent leader in wartime. In Trump’s mind, what bet­ter way to win over vot­ers than to start a war?

President Trump may be trying to create a "tough guy" image ahead of November's election.

Pres­i­dent Trump may be try­ing to cre­ate a “tough guy” image ahead of Novem­ber’s elec­tion. (Pho­to: Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

How­ev­er, the phe­nom­e­non Trump seems to be plac­ing his chips on doesn’t real­ly apply to the 2020 elec­tion. “Ral­ly­ing round the flag” cer­tain­ly boost­ed the pop­u­lar­i­ty of lead­ers like Har­ry S. Tru­man and John F. Kennedy, but it rarely helps mod­ern pres­i­dents. George W. Bush won the 2004 elec­tion in spite of the occu­pa­tion of Iraq  not because of it, and his father lost the 1992 elec­tion even though he had over­seen the deci­sive U.S. vic­to­ry in the 1991 Gulf War.

Don­ald Trump him­self won elec­tion in 2016 in part because Hillary Clin­ton was seen as com­plic­it in U.S. pol­i­cy towards con­flicts in Iraq, Libya, and else­where.

Suc­cess­ful pres­i­dents also use wartime expe­ri­ence to pro­mote the idea that they are calm under extreme pres­sure. Even the slight­est glance at Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter account would dis­pel that notion, espe­cial­ly if he is faced by an expe­ri­enced states­man like for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden.

Speak­ing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, they have all con­demned Soleimani’s killing in strong terms. Biden com­pared the move to “toss­ing a stick of dyna­mite into a tin­der­box,” while oth­er can­di­dates called Trump “reck­less” and promised to do every­thing to avoid con­flict. Trump him­self, per­haps see­ing the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of his action, has along with his lack­eys already made the spu­ri­ous claim that Soleimani’s killing was intend­ed “to stop a war, not start one.”

How­ev­er, the Pres­i­dent may have already set an unstop­pable process into motion. Iran is deter­mined to find any way to avenge the death of a nation­al super­hero and with the Pen­ta­gon send­ing thou­sands of troops to the region, the Quds Force and its allies will have many oppor­tu­ni­ties to inflict harm on Amer­i­cans.

In that event, Trump will not only have his deep-seat­ed inse­cu­ri­ties dri­ving him towards a mus­cu­lar response, he will doubt­less have to deal with pres­sure from the lead­ers of both Israel and Sau­di Ara­bia (who have both shown an abil­i­ty to influ­ence Trump) to strike at Iran – both coun­tries have a his­to­ry of using Amer­i­can pow­er to advance their own inter­ests.

In the com­plex and frac­tured land­scape of the Mid­dle East, destruc­tive rec­i­p­ro­cal exchanges (“an eye for an eye”) can all too often descend into some­thing far worse, and the U.S. cur­rent­ly lacks a pres­i­dent who can nav­i­gate the dan­ger with any degree of calm­ness, self-restraint or even dig­ni­ty. It is now up to Con­gress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple to avoid anoth­er dis­as­trous war.

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