Soleimani’s Killing: Justified, or an Act of War?

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Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution
In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

On Jan. 3, early morning Baghdad time, the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani when an airstrike at the Baghdad Airport destroyed his vehicle.

The general was the commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which specializes in unconventional warfare and covert intelligence operations.

Soleimani was a leading figure in Iranian politics and the IRGC and had even been touted, in the past, as a prospective candidate for president of Iran.

As the commander of the Quds Force, Soleimani was, for the last two decades, also the spear point of Tehran's efforts to expand its regional influence and destabilize its opponents. The Quds Force played a major role in organizing Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, following the collapse of Iraqi military forces, when the country was invaded by Islamic State jihadists. It has organized similar militia movements that have propped up governments friendly to Tehran from Venezuela to Syria and from Yemen to Lebanon.

Quds Force fighters intervened in Syria during the civil war (2012-present) at a critical time in the conflict to stabilize the Assad government and eventually help turn the tide. They have provided training, arms and financial support to scores of militant organizations like Hezbollah, the Houthis and Hamas, which often function as proxies for the Iranian government.

The Quds Force has also played a critical role in shaping what geopolitical analysts have termed a Shiite "Arc of Influence" across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, as well as a prominent role in Tehran's efforts to create a similar zone of influence from Yemen to Bahrain.

More significantly, Soleimani played an indirect role in orchestrating hundreds of attacks against American military personnel and civilian contractors, which resulted in an estimated 600 deaths and thousands of injuries.

It was the Soleimani-directed Quds Force that taught Shiite militias in Iraq how to construct the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used so effectively against American forces. He was a significant and, from an American perspective, a malignant influence across the Middle East who sought to thwart U.S. objectives and interests at every turn.

Was the Trump Administration Justified in Killing Soleimani?

Soleimani's death was an assassination. He was not killed on a battlefield, but deliberately targeted by the U.S. Attacking an opponent's leadership is an acknowledged part of warfare. One of the first things that U.S. military forces do in a conflict is attack an enemy's "command and control" capabilities.

Nor is this practice new. Many an ancient battle ended when one side's commander or monarch was slain on the battlefield. During the American Revolutionary War, the British tried to assassinate George Washington. During World War II, U.S. fighters ambushed a plane carrying Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, over New Guinea as a result of intelligence of Yamamoto's travel plans.

During the Cold War, political assassinations were part of both side's playbooks. The KGB was implicated in a score of assassination attempts, from Joseph Tito to Pope John Paul II. Stalin supposedly once ordered the assassination of American film actor and outspoken anti-Communist John Wayne. The CIA attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro on several occasions. A spate of recent Russian assassinations of prominent critics indicates that it's still a popular Kremlin option.

The U.S. is not technically at war with Iran. Assassinating an official of a foreign government is a criminal act. On the other hand, while Washington is not at war with Tehran, it would be ludicrous to suggest that it is at peace. Notwithstanding brief periods where they cooperated against a common foe, for the last four decades, the U.S. and Iran have been in an almost constant state of conflict.

Both sides have resorted to violence, either directly or through proxies, to thwart the other's ambitions and to advance their own objectives in the region. This state of intermittent, not quite war but not quite peace, decades-long conflict, is one of the features of the contemporary international system. Legally, this is a grey zone whose rules of conflict remain unspecified.

The Trump administration argued that the assassination of Soleimani was justified because he was planning imminent attacks on Americans and U.S. interests. This has caused critics of the administration to parse the meaning of "imminent" and to argue that there was "scant evidence" of an imminent attack.

That misses the point. Soleimani has been at the center of Iranian attacks on Americans and U.S. interests for more than two decades. His recent movements in the region and his presence in Baghdad underscore that his objectives had not changed. Whether an attack was coming the next day, the next week or the next month is irrelevant, because more attacks were clearly coming.

According to several intelligence reports, portions of which have been leaked to the media, including Reuters, Soleimani was particularly concerned about the rising tide of anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq. According to those sources, he had instructed pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to step up their attacks on American bases and military personnel and had supplied them with drones and Soviet-era Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. The intent was to provoke an American reaction on Iraqi soil and thereby deflect Iraqi anger away from Iran and toward the U.S.

Whether the ends justify the means is a question that everyone must answer for themselves. For my part, I think the U.S. was justified in killing Soleimani.

Are We Closer to War?

Critics of the Trump administration have argued that the assassination was reckless, that it was motivated by domestic political considerations and that it may bring the U.S and Iran closer to war. At the very least, it represents a dangerous escalation of the current conflict between the U.S. and Iran. The latter is certainly true. It marks an escalation in the current conflict between the two countries.

Was it reckless? That depends on the eventual outcome and one's interpretation of events. It may have consequences on domestic U.S. politics, but arguing that the attack was motivated strictly by domestic political considerations is a stretch. The U.S. had legitimate reasons for killing Soleimani -- a man who had worked tirelessly against American interests and had been responsible, indirectly, for hundreds of American deaths.

The more relevant question to consider is whether we were eventually going to end up in this place anyway? I believe the answer is yes.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly lambasted the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the "worst deal" ever done by the U.S. He pointed out, correctly, that the JCPOA did not address Tehran's actions to destabilize its Persian Gulf neighbors or Iran's aggressive adventurism throughout the Middle East and its use of militant organizations as proxies to advance its interests. Additionally, the JCPOA did nothing to curtail Iran's ballistic missile development program.

The JCPOA did succeed in postponing Iran's plans for obtaining a nuclear device in return for ending sanctions against it and for giving Tehran unfettered access to the world's financial and trading system.

Whether this deal made sense for the U.S. depends on your assessment of the state of the Iranian nuclear program. If Tehran was very close to developing nuclear weapons, then the agreement successfully put off a highly destabilizing event in the region. The agreement did not ultimately prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but it would have deferred it. In doing so, the JCPOA did what politicians are prone to do: Patch up a problem and push its resolution into the future so that it becomes someone else's issue to deal with.

If, on the other hand, you believed that Iran was still many years away from obtaining nuclear weapons, as I do, then Tehran gave up something it didn't have in return for getting sanctions lifted. If that was the case, then Trump is right in arguing the JCPOA was a bad deal for the U.S.

The Trump administration ultimately pulled out of the JCPOA. It levied new sanctions on Iran designed to curtail its oil exports and limit its ability to access the U.S.-dominated international financial system. Notwithstanding the opposition of many U.S. allies to those sanctions, they have worked remarkably well -- an outcome for which the Trump administration gets little credit. Iranian oil exports have declined by about 90 percent, to about 200,000 barrels a day. The actual number is probably higher, as some oil is being smuggled out via Iraq.

When the JCPOA was signed, Tehran announced that it intended to increase oil exports from around two million barrels a day to three million barrels. Instead, exports went in the opposite direction. A decade ago, such a sharp reduction in Iranian oil exports, not to mention its attempt to disrupt tanker traffic, would have spiked oil prices. This time, it barely made a ripple.

The sharp reduction in oil exports has crippled the Iranian government, producing a sharp economic crisis, and indirectly triggered a wave of domestic unrest by Iranians protesting corruption and the diversion of economic resources badly needed at home to "foreign adventurism." Coupled with recent anti-Iranian protests in Lebanon and Iraq, Tehran has been feeling besieged.

Tehran's response to the reimposition of economic sanctions was twofold.

First, it gradually stepped back from the constraints on its nuclear program imposed by the JCPOA, principally by utilizing advanced IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges, exceeding permitted enrichment levels, and by increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium.

Second, Tehran steadily expanded its provocations in the region. It gambled that, faced with mounting violence and threats to the world's oil supply, the Trump administration would be reluctant to respond militarily and would back away from its sanctions. Given the administration's initial reluctance to attack Iran, it appeared that the Iranian strategy was correct.

Iranian provocations included, among others, missile attacks on Saudi Arabia by its Houthi proxies in Yemen, including an attack by cruise missiles and drones on key ARAMCO oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September, and attacks on more than a half dozen ships in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf between May and November.

The U.S. also accused Iran of the shooting down of an American RQ-4 Global Hawk drone and of orchestrating a sharp increase in attacks on American bases in Iraq by Iranian-controlled Shiite militias.

The U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations by increasing its military forces in the Persian Gulf, including deploying B-52 Stratofortress bombers and F-22 Raptors, the latter for the first time, to the region. It also organized the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to protect international shipping in the area.

On Dec. 29, the U.S. attacked Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, which it blamed for attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq. That attack resulted in the deaths of 25 militiamen and injured dozens more and prompted the attack on the U.S. embassy by Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-linked Shiite militia. In retaliation, the Trump administration attacked the convoy carrying Soleimani.

Both the Iranian and U.S. governments have repeatedly declared they do not want to go to war with one another. The Iranian strategy of steadily increasing the level of violence in the region has not induced the U.S. to reduce the sanctions on Tehran. It has also had little impact on oil prices, depriving Tehran of what was once a feared weapon.

Instead, it has made the situation worse by prompting a buildup in U.S. forces and a tit-for-tat response by the U.S. On the other hand, while the U.S. sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, they have yet to induce Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement. Attempts by the French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to open a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran have not succeeded.

Iran has announced that it will respond to the assassination of Soleimani by attacking the U.S. military somewhere in the world at some point in the future. The Trump administration, in turn, has announced that it has identified 52 Iranian targets that it could strike in retaliation for another Iranian attack. For now, both sides appear locked in a tit-for-tat pattern of responses, but neither side wants, nor can afford, to escalate the conflict into a full-scale war.

American troops in Iraq are the most vulnerable. Whether Iran's proxies in Iraq significantly step up their attacks on U.S. military installations there will be telling. If they do, that will be a strong indication that Tehran wants to escalate the conflict and raise the stakes. If they do not, that would indicate that Iran is in a holding pattern, even if it responds with an act of violence elsewhere.

The implications of the U.S. attack on U.S.-Iraqi relations is unclear. On Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament voted overwhelmingly to expel U.S. troops. That session did not include Kurdish or Sunni Arab MPs, however. Both groups strongly favor a continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

The current Iraqi government is a caretaker one. Until a new government is voted in, the resolution is largely for show. That same day, the Iranian government announced that it was abandoning the final constraints imposed by the JCPOA. It was heading in that direction anyway.

Both sides have made it clear they will not back down. Both have demanded concessions from the other as a sign of good faith prior to any formal meeting and negotiation -- both of which Tehran has ruled out for now.

Its recent combativeness notwithstanding, the Trump administration has made it clear to Tehran, principally through Shinzo Abe, that it is open to finding a solution. Until then, the pattern of violence will continue, as will the search for a face-saving solution that each side can accept.

Postscript

On Tuesday evening, Baghdad time, Iran launched 15 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq that housed American troops. Eleven of those missiles reached their targets. Following the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that Iran had responded "proportionally" to the U.S. attack on Soleimani and that it had "concluded" its actions. The IRGC, however, announced that the attack on the bases was only the first step.

Iranian media reported that approximately 80 U.S. military personnel were killed in the attack. According to the Pentagon, however, there were no U.S. casualties. It's unclear at this point whether there were any Iraqi casualties.

It's significant that Tehran launched the attack from Iranian soil, taking full credit for it, and did not rely on proxies, as in the past. Moreover, the use of ballistic missiles, of which Iran has a stockpile of more than 4,000, was meant to underscore Tehran's long-range striking power.

Baghdad is awash with rumors that the U.S. was tipped off about the impending attack in order to put Americans out of harm's way. Depending on the rumor, the source was the Iranians themselves, conveyed through either the Russian or Iraqi governments.

That's not so farfetched. Tehran does not want to go to war with the U.S. It needed a show of strength to appease hawks in Iran but desired to do so without precipitating a further American response. It appears to have done that.

The IRGC is a loose cannon and may initiate further, rogue attacks against U.S. military personnel. It's likely that sporadic low-level attacks on the part of Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq will also continue. Tehran, however, appears to have sent a clear message that it does not want to escalate the confrontation and that it wants to avoid a war with the U.S. The response of financial and oil markets underscores that conclusion.

Both the U.S. and Iran are left in a stalemate, both countries pursuing strategies that have not succeeded in altering the other's behavior. That stalemate may continue, it may be blown up by a rogue action on the part of the IRGC or it may open the door to some sort of negotiated settlement.

Time will tell.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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