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.