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.
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.
The last days of the year saw a cascading series of escalations:
- an Iranian-backed militia launched rockets which killed and injured Americans on an Iraqi Army base; t
- he U.S. responded with air strikes against the militia;
- the resulting Iraqi casualties sparked protests which overran parts of the American Embassy in Baghdad.
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.
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?
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.