If you study the military record of the late General Qasem Soleimani, you’ll see why US military and political leaders feared his prowess – yet did not wish him dead.
The embodiment of America’s stance was former president George W Bush. In January 2008, Bush was informed that he had a real-time opportunity to kill Soleimani as he attended a meeting in Syria.
At the time, Soleimani was known to US intelligence as the commander of Iran’s special forces. He had played a leading role in nurturing the anti-American insurgency that bled US forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Bush was not soft on terrorism or Iran. He knew that upwards of 600 US soldiers had been killed by Iraqi militias sponsored by Soleimani. But the US president also had bruising experience with geopolitical reality: the fiasco of his Iraq invasion.
He knew better than anyone that just as eliminating Saddam Hussein had unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and terrorism that the United States could not control, so taking out Soleimani might have unforeseen bloody consequences.
Often derided for being dim, Bush had actually learned a hard lesson by the end of his failed presidency, a lesson that Donald Trump may yet absorb: Violently removing an enemy may create far larger problems than it solves.
Twelve years ago, Bush prudently passed on killing Soleimani. On January 3, Trump did not.With little deliberation, Trump pulled the trigger.
The current US president chose to do what Israel’s Mossad had considered and rejected on multiple occasions, concluding that killing Soleimani would not enhance Israel’s security.
Was Soleimani “assassinated” – that is to say, killed for political reasons? Or was he the victim of a “targeted killing,” meaning he was a legitimate target of war?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the National Broadcasting Company’s Chuck Todd that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on American targets when he was killed. When CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed for details on how imminent, Pompeo said, “This is not something that’s relevant.”
Washington chatter aside, Soleimani was a guest of the Iraqi government, which is a military ally of the US government.
He was not unwelcome in Baghdad. Iraqi government documents leaked last year to The Intercept show that Soleimani wielded wide influence in Iraqi affairs, often with top officials who were also on good terms with the United States.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told the Iraqi parliament on Sunday that Soleimani came to Iraq the week he was killed to respond to a diplomatic note from Saudi Arabia.
While bitter enemies, the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic were privately negotiating steps to pacify the region, which has been roiled by anti-Iranian and anti-American demonstrations.
“I was supposed to meet Soleimani in the morning the day he was killed,” Abdul-Mahdi said, according to news reports. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi to Iran.”
The Iraqi parliament proceeded to disinvite the 5,000 US troops stationed in the country. The parliament did not set a deadline for their departure, and scores of non-Shia parliamentarians did not vote.
Why kill Soleimani?
Soleimani was not feared by US (and Israeli and Saudi) policymakers because he was a terrorist (though he used terror tactics). He was feared because he was, against the odds, successful on the battlefield.
According to journalist Yossi Melman, Israeli intelligence assessed him as “a daring and talented commander, despite the considerable number of mistakes in his assessments and failed operations in the course of his career.”
First, Soleimani played a key role in driving US occupation forces out of Iraq. As Quds Force commander, he presided over the creation of anti-American militias in 2003 that mounted deadly attacks on US occupation forces.
One Iraqi militia leader, Qais al-Khazali, who debriefed US intelligence officers in 2008, said he had “a few meetings” with Soleimani and other Iranian officials of similar rank.
According to Khazali, Soleimani did not take part in the operational activities – did not provide weapons, training or cash. He left those tasks to deputies or intermediaries.
Under Iranian tutelage, these militias specialized in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill upwards of 600 soldiers, according to US General David Petraeus.
Soleimani’s attacks – along with the manifest failure of US goals to reduce terrorism and spread democracy – contributed to then-US president Barack Obama’s politically popular decision to withdraw most of the US troops in 2011.
That was a priority for the government in Tehran, and Soleimani helped achieve it.
Nemesis of ISIS
Second, Soleimani played a key role in driving Islamic State (ISIS) out of Iraq – a victory in which the United States ironically helped boost his reputation. In this battle, Soleimani took advantage of US vulnerability, not hubris.
When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic State in western Iraq six years ago, Tehran was just as alarmed as Washington. The Sunni fundamentalists of ISIS regard the Shia Muslims of Iran and Iraq as infidels, almost as contemptible as Americans and Israelis.
After the regular Iraqi armed forces collapsed, Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani blessed the creation of Shiite militias to save the country. Sistani’s fatwa empowered Iran to mobilize and expand Soleimani’s militia network.
The Iranian-sponsored fighters, along with the Kurdish peshmerga, proceeded to do most of the bloody street fighting that drove ISIS out of Mosul, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities.
While Soleimani moved openly in Iraq, US commanders did not attack him because Iranian forces did not attack them. Sometimes, pro-American and pro-Iranian soldiers even fought side by side.
Thanks to this tacit US-Iranian cooperation that neither country cared to publicly acknowledge, ISIS was expelled from Iraq into Syria by 2017.
In Iran, Soleimani emerged as a hero in the fight against the deadliest religious fanatics on the planet, especially after ISIS had carried out a terror attack in Tehran on June 2017 that killed 12 people.
In Iraq, the rout of ISIS enhanced the prestige of Soleimani and the Iranian-backed militias. Some of their leaders entered politics and business, drawing complaints about – and demonstrations against – heavy-handed Iranian influence.
Many Iraqis grew unhappy about Iran’s new influence, but success made Soleimani an indispensable security partner for an embattled government. That’s why he visited Baghdad the week of his death.
Besting the CIA
Third, Soleimani helped defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria’s civil war. In 2015, President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were losing ground to Sunni fundamentalist forces funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies.
The CIA hoped to overthrow Assad. Iran feared losing its ally in Damascus to a hostile anti-Shia regime controlled by al-Qaeda. Obama feared another Iraq and refused to commit to regime change in Syria.
Soleimani brought in Iranian advisers and fighters from Hezbollah, the Shiite militia of Lebanon that Iran has supported since the 1980s. With help from merciless Russian bombing attacks, the Iranian-trained ground forces helped Syria turn the tide on the jihadists.
The CIA, under directors Leon Panetta, John Brennan and Mike Pompeo, spent US$1 billion to overthrow Assad. They had less influence on the outcome than Soleimani.
The net effect of Soleimani’s three victories – abetted by US crimes and blunders – was, for better or worse, to bolster Iranian influence across the region. From Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, Iran gained political ground, thanks to Soleimani.
He perfected the art of asymmetric warfare, using local proxies, political alliances, deniable attacks, and selective terrorism to achieve the government’s political goals.
(Soleimani, it is worth noting, had no record of attacking non-uniformed Americans. While Pompeo said Soleimani “had put so much pain and suffering on the American people,” it is a fact that not a single American civilian was killed in an Iranian-backed terror attack between 2001 and 2019.)
Iran’s cumulative successes provoked dismay in Washington (and Tel Aviv and Riyadh). In the course of the 21st century, Iran overcame international isolation actually to gain, not lose, an advantage to its regional rivals.
Soleimani also became a media personality in the regime, using selfies from the battlefield to promote an image of an accessible general who liked to rub shoulders with his soldiers.
Across the region, Iran’s ambitions stirred up widespread opposition from secular, feminist, and nationalist movements that reject the theory and practice of Iranian theocracy.
But those non-violent movements mostly favored the nuclear deal that Trump tore up. They never called for the United States to attack Iran militarily. They are not welcoming Soleimani’s death, and they are unlikely to support the US (or Israeli) attacks in the coming conflict.
Quite the contrary. The anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iran and Iraq are over for the foreseeable future.
Iranians and Iraqis who publicly supported the United States and opposed the mullahs have been silenced. In death, as in life, Soleimani has diminished US influence in the Middle East.
Jefferson Morley has been a reporter and editor in Washington, DC, since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.