- On Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed that US forces killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike near Baghdad’s airport at the direction of President Donald Trump.
- As the leader of the elite and secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani abetted terrorism and violence throughout the region, including against US troops.
- Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama took action as president to target Soleimani or the Quds Force.
- Former military and intelligence officials have cited the potential for retaliation from Iran against US troops, diplomats, and allied forces in the region as a major reason for not killing Soleimani previously.
- In the immediate aftermath of the strike on Soleimani, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that “harsh retaliation” would be waiting for the US.
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On Thursday evening, the Pentagon confirmed that at the direction of President Donald Trump, US forces killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike near Baghdad’s airport, the most drastic step toward conflict with Iran in the 21st century.
Soleimani was for decades one of the most important and highly regarded military figures in Iran, playing a pivotal role in shaping Iranian foreign policy and the politics of the Middle East today.
The killing of the high-level commander, first reported by Iraqi state TV and later confirmed in a Pentagon statement, is the US’s most significant escalation of tensions against Iran yet and is likely to further inflame conflict in the region and provoke severe retaliation.
In the immediate aftermath of the strike on Soleimani, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that “harsh retaliation” would be waiting for the US, while a former military official, Mohsen Rezaee, vowed to “take vigorous revenge on America.”
As the leader of the elite and secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which carries out foreign intelligence operations outside of Iran, Soleimani abetted terrorism and violence throughout the region on several fronts. The Pentagon said he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US service members in Iraq and beyond.
Soleimani’s intelligence work focused on bolstering the influence of Shiite Muslims by helping build up the firepower of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, supporting Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip, and attacking American forces in Iraq, The New York Times reported.
Most recently, Soleimani was best known for taking on the terrorist group ISIS to bolster Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.
Despite the havoc Soleimani wreaked on the Middle East, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama took action as president to target Soleimani or anyone from the Quds Force.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan who worked as a CIA analyst and Pentagon official on Middle East issues under both Bush and Obama, shed some insight on Friday on why neither administration tried to kill Soleimani.
Slotkin wrote in a Twitter thread that she “participated in countless conversations on how to respond to Qassem Soleimani’s violent campaigns across the region,” adding that the “sophistication of Soleimani’s covert and overt military activities” had “contributed to significant destabilization across the region.”
Previous administrations decided that attacking Soleimani wasn’t worth the risk
Slotkin said that “what always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?”
She added that “the two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means.”
Specifically, Slotkin cited the potential for retaliation from Iran against US troops, diplomats, and allied forces in the region as a major reason, writing that “it is critical that the Administration has thought out the moves and counter-moves this attack will precipitate.”
So far, analysts and experts have predicted that Iran could retaliate against the United States in the form of cyberattacks and targeting US military personnel and diplomats in the region. In the aftermath of the attacks, the US State Department ordered all American citizens in Iraq to leave the country.
But as Iran expert and Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Karim Sadjadpour noted on Friday, Iran’s possible retaliatory actions against the United States could extend to its network of proxies far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East itself.
Sadjadpour wrote on Twitter that instead of Iran engaging in a direct armed conflict with the US, “what’s more likely is sustained proxy attacks against US interests/allies regionally and even globally,” noting that “Iran has a long history of such attacks in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with mixed success.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command in the Bush administration, in a 2009 article for Foreign Policy recounted his decision not to attack Soleimani’s convoy in Iraq on a night in 2007.
McChrystal said that while “there was good reason” to attack Soleimani over the deaths of US forces by Iranian-placed roadside bombs in Iraq, “to avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan, not strike immediately.”
“Despite my initial jealousy of Suleimani’s freedom to get things done quickly, I believe such restraint is a strength of the US political system,” he wrote. “A zealous and action-oriented mindset, if unchecked, can be used as a force for good – but if harnessed to the wrong interests or values, the consequences can be dire.”
US policy toward Iran shifted markedly in the Obama administration, which attempted to improve relations with Iran and ended up negotiating a landmark nuclear deal in 2015. Under the conditions of the deal, it wouldn’t have made sense for the US to take out one of the country’s top officials.
Questions remain surrounding the rationale behind the US’ decision to strike Soleimani now
But Trump, who criticized Obama’s Iran policy for years, took a more aggressive approach toward Iran, withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and significantly inflaming tensions both by antagonizing Iranian officials on Twitter, and the military expanding its presence in the region.
Michael Singh, who was a senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council under Bush and is now the managing director of The Washington Institute, told Insider that Trump’s more adversarial posturing toward Iran and the failures of past policy likely drove the administration to take the drastic step of killing Soleimani.
“Previous administrations concluded that the risks of targeting high-level figures outweighed the prospective benefits,” he said. “The Trump administration – mindful, perhaps, of the unsatisfying results of past US restraint – clearly reached a different conclusion.”
In a Friday Twitter thread, veteran foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, who covers the Middle East and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda for The New York Times, reported even more details that cast significant doubt on the Pentagon’s claim that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack that would pose a direct threat to American lives and interests.
Citing US intelligence officials briefed on the strike, Callimachi described the purported evidence of Soleimani’s planned moves as “razor-thin,” with one source describing the justification for taking out Soleimani as making an “illogical leap.”
Callimachi also suggested that both the very hasty preparation for and execution of the strike, which the administration carried out without thoroughly briefing Congress, indicated that Trump may have decided to strike Soleimani at this particular moment partly to distract from the impending impeachment trial in the US Senate.
The upcoming trial will receive significant national attention and subject the president to even more scrutiny as it weighs whether to convict Trump on articles of abusing his office and obstructing Congress.
“No one’s trying to downplay Suleimani’s crimes. The question is why now? His whereabouts have been known before. His resume of killing-by-proxy is not a secret,” she wrote, adding that it was, “hard to decouple his killing from the impeachment saga.”
John Haltiwanger contributed to this report.
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