We’re Just Discovering the Price of Killing Soleimani

Grieving families around the world are already paying it.

A man holds a photo of Qassem Soleimani, surrounded by others on a dark street in Tehran, celebrating after Iran launched missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.
Wana News Agency / Reuters

No American paid a price for President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s Qassem Soleimani. But it looks like 176 other people did, including 63 Canadian citizens and many more Iranian nationals en route to Canada.

As of mid-day today, a horrible new chapter of the story has been posted for all to see. Iran retaliated for the killing by firing a barrage of weapons at bases inside Iraq. That barrage did little harm. The Iranians may not have known that when, two hours later, they perceived a large moving object in their skies. It seems they fired anti-aircraft missiles and brought down a civilian airliner, killing all aboard.

Now the harrowing stories of the lost—students returning to university in Canada, newlyweds, children—are filling Canadian media, and will soon claim the attention of the world.

These stories point an accusatory finger, first, at the Iranian government. Iranian military authorities apparently fired at a plane cleared to fly in their airspace that had lifted off only minutes before from the Tehran airport. It was the Iranian authorities, too, who set in motion the cycle of attack and response that culminated with the destruction of a civilian airliner. On December 27, Iranian proxies fired rockets at a U.S. base in Kirkuk, Iraq, killing a U.S. contractor and injuring four American service members and two Iraqi security personnel.* The United States struck back on December 29 with an air raid against Iranian-sponsored militias in Syria and Iraq, killing an estimated 25 people and injuring many more. Iranian-backed forces mobbed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on December 31—and it was this that prompted the killing of Soleimani and all that followed.

Yet the United States cannot shove all blame on Iran for the human disaster of Flight 752. Nobody intended for civilians to die. That’s the way it is with unintended consequences—and why governments are supposed to weigh carefully the decision to employ deadly force.

The Trump administration is telling an obviously false story about the decision to kill Soleimani. Instead of acknowledging that Soleimani was killed in reprisal, the Trump administration instead argues that the killing was necessary to avert attacks that were simultaneously so imminent that only killing could thwart them and so non-imminent that by attacking the top of the chain of command, the gunmen on the ground would somehow be stopped.

Members of Congress who have received the Trump administration’s classified briefings have scoffed at its claims. The Trump administration refuses to share evidence even with the eight members of Congress who share the highest security clearance. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News that viewers would just have to be assured that the Trump administration was telling the truth. This is the same Vice President Pence who told reporters that he stayed at a Trump resort on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, two hours’ travel from meetings in Dublin, because his great-grandmother had grown up nearby.

The Trump administration’s accounts are noncredible. The world is owed the truth, however painful.

From Iran’s terror-stained regime, not much is expected in the way of humanity or decency. A wave of protests erupted across Iran on November 15, at first over increases in the price of fuel, then over other economic and political grievances. The regime responded with repression that tortured and killed hundreds of people.

From the United States, however, a different standard is expected. On the confirmed public record (as opposed to “take our word for it” secret information), Trump acted against Soleimani impulsively. When the killing escalated tensions with Iran, Trump and his administration told apparent lies to make their behavior seem more considered and more justified. In the first relief that Iranian retaliation had not done more damage, the president accepted accolades for his leadership. You just cannot admit that Trump was right for once became a pro-administration talking point. Yet now we are confronted with the full measure of the toll—however unintended—of open hostilities.

Trump, of course, disclaims all responsibility, as he habitually does. He’s always been a credit-grabber and a responsibility-dodger. “It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood,” the president told reporters this morning about the downed airplane. As Gordon Sondland memorably put it, Trump cares only about big things, things that will benefit him personally. The victims of the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 were not U.S. citizens, and certainly not residents of any state that Trump might win in 2020, so who cares, really? The loss of life had “nothing to do with us.” It was a “mistake on the other side.” The gun just went off; let’s not ask too many questions about who put the bullets in the chamber.

Soleimani abundantly deserved to die a violent death. The 176 innocents he took with him did not. President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama both flinched from doing justice to Soleimani, because they asked, “And what will happen next?” Trump did not ask that question. Families across half the world are now grieving a consequence that Trump’s ego forbade him to imagine or ponder.

*An earlier version of this article stated that Iran fired rockets that killed a U.S. contractor on December 27. It's thought that Iranian proxies fired the rockets.