Soleimani Was Failing

Trump should have left Soleimani alive and in place, but made him operationally ineffective by killing his deputies.

A protester holds up a picture of late General Qassem Soleimani.
Wana News Agency / Reuters

Hard to say he didn’t deserve it. Qassem Soleimani was responsible for 11 recent attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq even before the one that killed a U.S. contractor; Iranian attacks on neutral, civilian shipping in the Gulf; the attack on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia; IEDs that killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. He was the architect of Iran’s strategy of mobilizing militias to destabilize neighboring states and the brutal strategy of bleeding Syria dry.

While we may not be at war with Iran, Soleimani has been at war with the United States for 15 years. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is incorrect that “this war started when the JCPOA was entered into,” but Iran’s proxy attacks did increase after the nuclear agreement came into force, and they have increased significantly since the U.S. withdrew from the agreement.

The previous two American presidents both considered killing Soleimani as part of the Iraq War effort. And President Donald Trump had been incredibly—even perhaps damagingly—restrained in not overtly retaliating for attacks on shipping, Aramco, U.S. bases, and the embassy in Iraq. American allies in the Middle East and beyond were worried about the U.S. reestablishing deterrence, by which they mean retaliating to show the Iranians and other potential predators that it wouldn’t let them get away with these acts of war.

So the administration was justified in killing Soleimani—but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

The fact is that much of Soleimani’s strategy had begun to falter, and in ways advantageous to U.S. interests. While Soleimani fought the ground war in Syria on Bashar al-Assad’s behalf, only Russian intervention prevented Assad’s fall. Russia will dictate the terms of Syria’s future, not Iran. Iraq’s Kurdish president had succeeded in preventing a pro-Iranian successor to pro-Iranian Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The protests in Iraq and Lebanon were about corruption and unrepresentative governance, which Iran was associated with because of its influence in those countries even before Iranian-affiliated militias responded violently. In the case of Iraq, they killed more than 500 protesters and wounded a staggering 19,000.

Iran’s strategy of gaining depth beyond its borders succeeded because it was opaque. Soleimani’s desire for credit—pictures from regional battlefields, chairing the Iraqi-government meeting that decided whether Abadi would remain in power—removed the plausible deniability of Iranian orchestration, activating nationalistic antibodies in Iraq and Lebanon.

It’s possible, even likely, that recent attacks by Iran on U.S. bases in Iraq were an overt attempt to distract from the validity of protests in Iraq. In that, Soleimani may have succeeded in death at what he was failing to achieve in life. Judging by the crowds at Soleimani’s funerals in Iran, his killing erased fissures between Iranians and their government, at least temporarily.

Iraq, meanwhile, may well determine that it’s more secure without U.S. forces. Trump’s threat not to leave Iraq unless remunerated for the cost of bases built in that country are damaging to the relationship. Who wants that kind of friend?

Losing the strategist of Iranian proxy warfare would be a cheap price to pay for Iran to achieve a rapprochement between the government and its people, and a U.S. exit from Iraq. That’s especially the case since the proxy strategy may have been reaching its limits under Soleimani, and he’d created a capable cadre of deputies.

The better strategy would have been to leave Soleimani alive and in place, but to make him operationally ineffective by killing his deputies, as the U.S. has done with al-Qaeda deputies. Taking out a deputy draws less press, but sends a powerful message; the strategy places the onus of escalation on Iran and gives the U.S. the benefit of a public posture of restraint. It’s what the Eisenhower administration called “quiet military measures” during the 1958 Berlin crisis.

But since Trump decided to go after the Quds Force commander, he should at least have coordinated with countries that host U.S. bases or that have deployed forces in furtherance of U.S. interests in the Middle East. He did not. When the U.S. leaves allies out of the loop, those allies become less likely to contribute to future coalitions, leading to more strain on U.S. forces. Trump also made it abundantly clear that he thinks only of America, first and last, when he tweeted that the U.S. would respond to any attacks on U.S. service personnel specifically. That is a poor way to repay the 78 other countries and four international organizations participating in the fight against the Islamic State for their dedication.

Perhaps the most generous take on the Soleimani killing is that it merely hastened negative outcomes that would have happened anyway. Iran would likely have restarted enrichment at its nuclear plants, and continued attacks on U.S. interests and commerce passing through the Gulf. U.S. troops may have left Iraq, given Trump’s well-publicized efforts to abandon operations there.

As so often with the Trump administration, the problem is less the policy position than the execution. The administration has a way of maximizing the costs and minimizing the benefits of its actions.