By Jonathan Meilaender
I was sitting on my couch, enjoying the last few days of break, when my dad walked in. “Do you know Qasem Soleimani?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” I answered, surprised.
“We just killed him.”
You can hardly imagine my astonishment at this pronouncement. I was not surprised to hear of an action against Iran, but this was perhaps the most shocking bit of Middle East news I have heard in my lifetime. Let me show you why I was so taken aback, and examine whether Soleimani’s death is likely to harm or benefit America.
There has been a good deal of contradictory information in the media about who Qasem Soleimani was, and why he was killed. He was, in fact, a confusing character. Soleimani commanded the “Quds” forces of the Iranian military. The Quds forces are sort of like a Western special operations force, but not quite. They focus very heavily on training and supporting paramilitary forces in foreign countries, rather than conducting conventional military operations. At times they also engage in assassinations. The forces they train and support help advance Iran’s interests throughout the Middle East, often hindering American allies.
Especially relevant now, though, is the support the Quds forces have been offering Shiite militia groups in Iraq. These militias, collectively known as PMUs (popular mobilization units), have done a great deal of fighting against the Islamic State over the past few years. But many consider themselves enemies of America, and some fought against American troops during the occupation, causing considerable casualties.
So we have rather a strange situation in which Soleimani, though an avowed enemy of the United States, has also been a key contributor to the fight against ISIS. Sometimes, in the shifting battlefields of the Middle East, the enemies of our enemies are still our enemies as well.
The events leading up to Soleimani’s death began when an attack by one of these PMU Shiite militias (Katai’ib Hezbollah), a few weeks ago, killed an American contractor working at a military base. The US chose to escalate the situation by targeting the group involved with airstrikes, killing about 25 militiamen. Members and supporters of the militia group then decided to protest at the US embassy, breaking into the protected Green Zone and causing substantial damage to the compound, though without injuring any US military personnel.
It was at this point that Trump decided to kill Soleimani as a retaliatory measure. His decision was surprising because it was such an aggressive retaliation. Soleimani probably wasn’t involved in any of the previous violence, and he was an extremely high-ranking commander, probably one of the three most powerful men in Iran. Clearly, the purpose was to send a strong message of deterrence to Iran to discourage future violence, but the seemingly disproportionate nature of that message left many observers scratching their heads.
Actually, the strike killed not only Soleimani, but also Abdul-Mahdi al-Mohandes, second in command of all the PMUs. Even though Soleimani’s killing generated more media attention, al-Mohandes’ death has an almost equally large effect in Iraq. After all, he was an Iraqi, and generally much less controversial than Soleimani. And he was viewed, even more than Soleimani, as a war hero, with some justification. After all, the PMUs he commanded were crucial to the defeat of ISIS, despite a dubious human rights record. (Of course, the regular Iraqi army—particularly the US-trained, elite Golden Division—played an important role as well, and did a lot of the heavy lifting.)
We must look to Iraqi politics to understand the consequences of the US strikes. Iraq is divided into three main ethnic/religious groups: Kurdish and Sunni minorities and a Shiite majority. Iran, of course, is Shiite as well, but most of world’s Muslim are Sunni, as are all other major states in the region. Therefore, Iraq is internally torn between a natural allegiance to Iran and a natural distrust of it. Similar divisions extend into the Shiite majority itself. Shiites in Iraq have become increasingly frustrated with the United States, which they see useless after the defeat of ISIS. At the same time, a growing strain of Iraqi nationalism is not interested in bowing to the wishes of Iran. Many Iraqi Shiites want to carve out their own identity, free from both Iranian and American influence.
"Sometimes, in the shifting battlefields of the Middle East, the enemies of our enemies are still our enemies as well."
So far, the Prime Ministers of Iraq—formerly Haider al-Abadi, now Adil Abdul-Mahdi—had been able to resist the pressure from their constituents, including two of the main parties in Parliament, to oust US forces and move away from America (and sometimes away from, but also sometimes toward, Iran). But the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandes made it impossible for Abdel-Mahdi to resist any longer the calls for expulsion of US forces. So, only a few days after the attack, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel US troops. It remains to be seen how that will work out in practice—Trump has not been receptive to the idea, and some Iraqi politicians (including, I suspect, the PM) may prefer a continued, limited US presence. Still, the effect of the attack has been to turn public opinion very firmly against America.
Even though media attention has mostly focused on Iran’s response, the long-term effect on Iraq will likely be more significant. Still, a brief summary of Iran’s retaliatory actions may be in order. Iran fired between 16 missiles at US bases in Anbar (western Iraq) and Kurdistan (northern Iraq), according to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Several failed or missed, but about 12 hit their targets. 34 US troops were treated for possible concussive or other brain injuries, according to a DOD spokesman most were minor. No Iraqi casualties were reported, and no one was killed.
The Iranian attacks probably did aim to kill American troops, but their limited nature suggests an unwillingness to escalate. Indeed, the fact that they failed to kill anyone made it much easier for President Trump to announce, as he did, that no further action would be taken against Iran. Iran could look strong domestically—the regime had “gotten revenge”—without actually having harmed America. Whether or not the original decision to kill Soleimani was wise, it was clearly a good decision to deescalate on Trump’s part, as Iran had threatened to attack Dubai and Haifa next—a course of action that would almost certainly lead to a regional war.
The whole saga could have ended there. But a twist was added when, in the early morning hours after the attacks, an Iranian surface-to-air missile crew mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner departing Teheran. The aircraft was mistaken for an American jet. This horrible tragedy considerably weakened Iran’s position. Before, they had a good justification for retaliation and, on the whole, could be seen as having retaliated “successfully.” But now, suddenly, their retaliation had ended not with the deaths of Americans, but Iranians. Demonstrators took to the streets in Teheran. Instead of chanting “Death to America,” as usual, they denounced Ayatollah Khamenei (Iran’s “Supreme Leader”). A remarkable video showed protesters at a Teheran University walking around American and Israeli flags, painted on the ground to allow Iranians to demonstrate their hatred for those nations. To these protesters, the Iranian government, not America, was the enemy.
And so, in the most accidental and tragic way, the decision to kill Soleimani turned from one that clearly harmed America (and still may, since it will likely cause us to withdraw from Iraq) to one that mostly harmed Iran. As has frequently been the case since the Ayatollahs took over the country, it was the Iranian people who ultimately suffered.
We should draw a two-fold lessons from these events: first, Iran is not quite as evil as we often think. Its retaliation was limited and justified, and the protests show that the Iranian people are not and never have been our enemies. Iran, far from being the bogeyman of the Middle East, is simply another nation that suffers under a repressive government—and not by any means the most fundamentalist in the region. (That designation belongs to Saudi Arabia.) Second, public opinion, and the political realities of the region, matter. A careful observer could easily see that Iraq would evict American troops after the attack, but Trump does not seem to have even considered the possibility. That shortsightedness is a continuing flaw of American policy in the Middle East.