There was a case for killing Major General Qassem Soleimani. For two decades, as the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, he executed Iran’s long game of strategic depth in the Middle East—arming and guiding proxy militias in Lebanon and Iraq that became stronger than either state, giving Bashar al-Assad essential support to win the Syrian civil war at the cost of half a million lives, waging a proxy war in Yemen against the hated Saudis, and repeatedly testing America and its allies with military actions around the region for which Iran never seemed to pay a military price.
The United States, a vastly stronger power, was unwilling to strike back in a way that would risk a war it didn’t want. Whenever Soleimani came within American gun sights, the U.S. declined to pull the trigger. Perhaps he acquired a sense of impunity. Iran—a midsize country with an unintimidating conventional army, a vulnerable economy, and a chronically restless population—seemed to have the winning hand, all because the U.S. wouldn’t use its overwhelming military advantage.
The Obama administration negotiated a historic agreement that contained Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but not its proxy wars. Those were supposed to be the subject of subsequent talks. But it was never obvious why Iran would abandon the one tool of power it had learned to use so successfully. Deprived of a nuclear arsenal, Iran had to rely more than ever on its Quds Force and its array of regional allies. Without saying so, President Barack Obama was prepared to accept this state of affairs if the only real alternative was another Middle Eastern war.