The American assassination of Quds force chief Qassem Soleimani is like betting all you’ve got in the Middle East poker game. The elimination of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force was an attack on the man whose symbolic and practical value to the Islamic regime was second only to that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was Soleimani’s mentor.
A violent Iranian response is on the way – and it could last a long time and happen on a number of fronts. The assassination brings the United States and Iran closer to a war that neither really wants, a head-on collision that could also complicate things for Israel.
Soleimani was a terrorist with a great deal of blood on his hands. The old saying that the world became a slightly better place without him is justified. His murderous role the region, and further afield, was no less than that of Osama bin Laden (killed by the Obama administration in 2011) or that of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (killed by the Trump administration in October).
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In a long New Yorker article in September 2013, Soleimani was compared to Karla, the Soviet master spy in John le Carré’s novels. But Karla kept a much lower profile.
In the past few years, because of Iran’s successes – whose greatest achievement was guaranteeing the survival of the Assad regime in Syria – Soleimani became a sort of national hero, someone who operated on the main stage as well as behind the scenes. Soleimani didn’t just give orders from far away, from the operations rooms and on the screens, he went out to the front with Iranian fighters and their partners – and made sure to publicize it.
Iran’s involvement in the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Soleimani was the spearhead of this effort. His true importance was so much greater than his official titles. Some observers saw him as a potential leader of Iran. Western intelligence agencies and the international media had an intense interest in him, bordering on obsession. The political leadership, in Israel and elsewhere, wolfed down every profile written about him.
Over the years, a debate raged over whether to kill Soleimani. There were the good ramifications: a severe blow to Iranian objectives in the region, and the bad ones: Iranian acts of revenge, even as much as a war. In 2008, according to American media reports, Israel and the United States jointly killed Imad Mughniyeh, the man described as Hezbollah’s military chief.
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Mughniyeh was killed in a car-bomb blast after he left a reception at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. Soleimani escorted him to the car. According to U.S. media reports, at the last moment the Americans vetoed an Israeli proposal to kill them both.
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The snowballing events that led to the killing, which happened just a bit after midnight Friday morning, began a week ago. The Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which receive funding and orders from the Quds force, fired around 30 rockets at an Iraqi army base in Kirkuk in northern Iraq. An American civilian, an employee of an American contractor, was killed – the first direct hit on an American in Iranian attacks that began in May and largely targeted oil-industry sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In response, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on bases of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, killing at least 25 fighters. The Iranians then sent the militias to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in what was supposedly a spontaneous protest. The chain of events has come to an end, for now, with the deaths of Soleimani and senior militia leaders who were killed when they arrived to greet Soleimani after his plane landed at Baghdad International Airport.
According to the Arab and other foreign media, Israel made its own contribution to increasing the friction with airstrikes against the Shi’ite militias last summer in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The attacks raised tensions between the Iraqi government and the United States, which still has some 5,000 troops in Iraq, the last remnant of the 2003 Iraq War.
An initiative in the Iraqi parliament to remove the American troops from Iraq was launched following these attacks. It’s likely that this will be debated once again now even more enthusiastically. At the end of the year, Israeli military chief Aviv Kochavi said the chances of an Israeli-Iranian conflict this year in the north had risen. In his speech, Kochavi said a number of times that the developing threat stemmed from Iran’s actions in Iraq.
The first Iranian response is expected to come soon. The obvious battlefield will be Iraq and certainly American targets. Saudi Arabia too, as Tehran’s most immediate enemy, could see itself attacked.
The worrying question for Israel is whether Iran will try to involve it via revenge attacks. Last year, Soleimani tried to get Hezbollah to act against Israel. It seems Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the idea – and Soleimani was forced to base his efforts on the militias, some of them Lebanese, that the Iranians had sent to southern Syria. It’s likely that the Iranians will also respond with further violations of the nuclear agreement, a step they planned anyway – but now they’ll probably accelerate it.
In the next few days, the Iranians will also probably accuse Israel of involvement in the killing. Not a week passes without a senior Israeli official threatening Iran, or the Israeli media reporting new details on covert Israeli operations against Iranian interests in the region. In this case, Israeli politicians should forgo any unwarranted gloating. Israel has every reason to try to remain outside the developing conflict, though the regime in Tehran will try to involve Israel because of its ideological hatred of us.
Trump will receive a great deal of praise in Israel, as well as in other countries in the region – unlike the relative coolness with which the killing has been received by the Democrats. As with the killing of Baghdadi, the assassination of Soleimani was something Trump loves: a precise and resounding attack on someone Americans identify almost instinctively as the embodiment of evil.
But the administration hasn’t shown any continuity or planning in its foreign policy. Trump has changed his mind more than once; it’s doubtful he would have made Friday’s move if the Iranians hadn’t insisted on stretching the Americans’ patience to the breaking point.
After almost three years in the White House, Trump has met his first major crisis in foreign policy. With all due respect to Trump’s strike on the largest exporter of terrorism in the Middle East, it’s possible to say we’d sleep better if someone more stable and experienced were sitting in the Oval Office.