Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force who was killed in Iraq yesterday, was the most successful military figure of his time. One should grade success not in absolute terms, but by how much is done with how little—and on that scale, Soleimani was a prodigy. The end of his career is as pivotal in the region as the retirement of an athlete who has dominated his sport, or a musician whose sound, once unique, somehow has become imitated by every young crooner out there. One difference is that Bob Dylan is still touring and Michael Jordan has moved on to hawking sneakers and steaks. Soleimani has earned the only retirement befitting a man of his long and appalling record, which is to be vaporized in a U.S. air strike.
Soleimani’s obituaries will note his involvement in numerous wars along Iran’s periphery (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen). But all these wars are in fact one war, the sole war he was fighting for his entire career, starting from his days as a young officer in the early 1980s fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Consider Iran’s pathetic fortunes then: Its civilian population cowered in terror at Iraqi air raids; its military wasted itself in “human wave” attacks that generated “martyrs” at a startling pace. The territory Iran and Iraq traded, at immense cost, was minimal, and strategically worthless. Iran’s goal (and Soleimani’s) then would have been to avoid annihilation by Iraq—and then, only as a distant dream, to overrun its enemy and capture the Shiite holy places in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Baghdad.
Now the notion of Iranian control of these cities hardly beggars the strategic imagination. The Iran-Iraq War has lasted three decades longer than history supposed, and the machinations of Soleimani have been largely responsible for its outcome now looking favorable to Iran. (The other contribution to this outcome was the botched occupation of Iraq by the United States.) Because the Iraqi side of the war against the Islamic State was fought in part by Iranian-backed militias, Soleimani in 2015 could appear in the city of Tikrit while supervising a take-back operation. The power of that image to an Iranian audience that remembered the sorrows of the 1980s cannot be overstated—the most recognizable Iranian general striding confidently through Saddam’s hometown! If the 1980s were the Iranian Revolution’s nadir, Soleimani’s role was to revive the revolution and lead it for another 20 years.
Everything else—war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen; support for Bashar al-Assad, via Hezbollah—has been a contribution to this larger struggle to expand Iran’s influence into its Sunni Arab periphery, and to do so on the cheap (with proxies) against Sunni adversaries often backed by big-spending patrons in Washington. (I have already mentioned the Sunni adversaries, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda, not backed by Washington. Online, I see Sunni jihadists celebrating Soleimani’s death, with “I ❤️ Donald Trump” tweets in some cases.) The assaults on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, perpetrated by Iranian proxies with the support of the Iraqi government, are the most recent manifestation of this plan. The decision to fight these dirty wars is morally unforgivable, but as a strategic move, they have made Soleimani a hero to his government.
The real questions are not of morality (did he have it coming?) but of timing. I doubt that yesterday was the first time Soleimani became a visible target for the United States. But this is the first time, to my knowledge, that we have tried to kill him. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s statement on Soleimani’s death warned of what might come next. “Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” Biden said (apparently unaware that tinderboxes are smaller than sticks of dynamite, or that dynamite obliterates dry and soggy firewood with equal ease).
We should be asking two questions: Why now? and What now? The most obvious answer to the first is that Iran escalated its war with the United States by attacking the embassy in Baghdad, and that Soleimani’s assassination was the response Iran could (or should) have predicted. Unlike other Iranian escalations, this one came close to being irreversible—embassies, once overrun, cannot simply reopen after the protesters have finished looting the office supplies—and required a quick deterrent reply, enough to force Iran to pause and recalculate. Soleimani posed an ongoing and lethal threat. The other, more worrying answer to Why now? is that the president is impulsive, and wages war without much thought.
What now? Strangely, this question is in some ways easier to answer. We are, as Andrew Exum writes, at war, and you do not have to be Kreskin to know that Iran will retaliate. The Soleimani lesson—what he crystallized into doctrine for Iran—is that for a weak power like Iran, geostrategy works only by indirect confrontation. You find unexpected pain points in your enemies, nerves left exposed here and there in forgotten places. Many are predicting attacks on American interests abroad: embassies, civilian targets, oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. But the list of predictable targets ends where the Iranians’ list of attractive targets starts. We have traded acute chaos in Baghdad for an extension and escalation of our permanent war against Iran in the region.