A U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq under the authorization of President Donald Trump in early January. As commander of Iran’s Quds Force, a division responsible for extraterritorial military operations, Soleimani was Iran’s highest-ranking military official, and throughout his career, he led military operations to support the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Through these campaigns, he was reportedly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. While the Trump administration views the killing of Soleimani as a decisive American victory, a more comprehensive view reveals that the U.S. will actually gain very little from the action.
In killing Soleimani, the U.S. eliminated a highly capable military commander who was actively harming American interests in the Middle East. However, by neutralizing a single leader, the U.S. did not significantly weaken the fighting capabilities of the Iranian military, which will continue to counter American objectives in regional proxy conflicts. Shortly after Soleimani’s death, Iran appointed Soleimani’s former deputy Esmail Ghaani as the new commander of the Quds Force, and he will continue implementing the objectives of his predecessor. Admittedly, Ghaani may currently lack the key relationships that Soleimani cultivated with Iranian allies such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. It is Iranian support, not personal friendship with Soleimani, that form the basis of these relationships. Therefore, given Iran’s unchanged objectives, the country will fully retain its proxy alliances after Soleimani’s death.
Furthermore, the U.S. attack threatens to push Iraq, a key U.S. partner, closer to Iran. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq and the U.S. have had a close relationship rooted in American troop presence in the country. However, as Iraq’s neighbor, Iran is also a close Iraqi partner and has been seeking to establish its own influence in the country. The killing of Soleimani, which occurred on Iraqi soil without the knowledge of the Iraqi government, has triggered serious Iraqi backlash against the U.S., as the Iraqi military stated that the American attack was “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a clear breach of the American forces.” By pushing Iraq away from Washington, the attack plays perfectly into the plans of Iran. If America loses support in Iraq and withdraws its forces, which the Iraqi Parliament voted in favor of after the attack, then it would leave behind a power vacuum that ISIS could exploit. Iran would also gain an opportunity to exert long-term political and military influence over Iraq.
Finally, despite Trump’s claim that the attack helped “stop a war” with Iran, the attack on Soleimani has pushed the U.S. and Iran dangerously close to war. In response to the strike, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened “severe retaliation” against the U.S. His government proceeded to launch more than a dozen missiles at an Iraqi air base hosting U.S. troops. Fortunately, there were no U.S. casualties, allowing Trump to signal an easing of tensions. Perhaps Iran intended to miss U.S. personnel, but had there been American casualties resulting from the Iranian strike, even if unintended by Iran, Trump would have been compelled to respond militarily, launching the U.S. into war with Iran overnight. The situation was too close for comfort.
A war with Iran would not be a worthwhile endeavor. Barring the use of nuclear weapons, war against Iran would require much greater military and financial resources than was consumed in the 2003 Iraq War. Not only is Iran significantly larger geographically, but its military is a much stronger force than was the Iraqi military under Hussein’s regime. Even still, American military supremacy reliably ensures a U.S. victory against Iran, but after the war, the U.S. would have to indefinitely maintain hundreds of thousands of troops in the region to maintain stability, not to mention that countless casualties such a conflict would cause. Furthermore, fighting Iran would take America’s energy away from other military objectives in the Middle East, such as fighting ISIS, and give Russia the opportunity to cement its position in Syria. Admittedly, the U.S. ultimately controls how it responds to any Iranian retaliation, but tough posturing and inflammatory tensions towards Iran can push American decision-makers beyond a point of no return.
All of these negative consequences put into question the US reasoning behind the attack. If indeed, as Trump claims, he received intelligence that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests, then Trump could have sent troops to protect the interests at risk. Some claim that killing Soleimani would encourage Iran to think twice about orchestrating acts of aggression against the U.S., like the 2019 Iranian downing of an American drone and the storming of the American embassy in Baghdad.
However, a better way to deter Iranian aggression would have been to conduct forceful counterstrikes on Iranian military targets. If the U.S. had reacted in this way instead of killing Soleimani, it would have greater support amongst regional and European allies, which gives the U.S. more political capital when orchestrating further action against Iran. Finally, killing Soleimani may seem just because he contributed to American deaths in the region, but his deserving justice does not make killing him a smart strategic action, for all the reasons articulated above.
Now that the attack has happened and the U.S. and Iran are backing away from further conflict, Trump should make clear to Iraq that U.S. military presence has safeguarded and will continue to safeguard the country’s sovereignty from ISIS and Iran-backed militias. With this understanding, Iraq can hopefully recover its goodwill towards the U.S., and the effects of the blunder will be partially mitigated. Based on what this incident, Trump and future American presidents should note that further actions that escalate tensions without a guiding strategy could be seriously unwise.
Richard Song is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.