6 January 2020

Assassinating Soleimani was a prudent step

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Following last week’s assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the general of Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, the Trump administration has come in for a fair bit of criticism.

For some the US can do no right, and even the assassination of a figure as despicable as Soleimani still provokes instinctive disapproval and despair in some quarters. A more sober denunciation of President Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani, has been simply to question whether it was a prudent step.

Some have taken the view that the decision was reckless. It cut off the possibility of dialogue between Washington and Tehran. In doing so, it increased the likelihood of, if not all-out war, then at least an asymmetrical war of attrition. In such an event, the US which would feel the brunt of the Islamic Republic’s wrath, which would target both US interests in the Middle East and regional allies such as Israel and the Gulf states. Some fear that the assassination may also spur the activation of Iran or Hezbollah’s international terrorist cells, which could strike targets abroad.

However, it is worth remembering that back in 2008 the US, together with Israel, assassinated Imad Mughniyeh, an Iranian agent and Hezbollah leader who had masterminded scores of international terrorist outrages. Mughniyeh was meeting Soleimani that very same day and Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, wanted to also take out Soleimani.

Fearing that the death of such a prominent Iranian official would enflame the region, the Bush administration overruled Israel and refused to assassinate the Iranian general. Later in 2011, the Obama Administration had the opportunity to kill Soleimani but also declined, on much the same grounds.

Far from being grateful for having his life spared by the ‘Great Satan’, Soleimani went on exploit the fragility of Iraq and the civil wars in Syria and Yemen in order to cultivate and further entrench the Islamic Republic’s nefarious influence in the region. He directed proxies to engage in a range of asymmetrical attacks on the interests of the US and its allies, most recently Saudi oil facilities and the US embassy in Baghdad.

Indeed, the Islamic Republic’s strength lies in its ability to use proxies throughout the region and its use of asymmetrical warfare. It was Soleimani who cultivated these clandestine networks and alliances in a manner which was both efficient and cost-effective.

This is why his assassination is such a blow to Iran. The regime has lost its key strategic planner, architect and executioner. Iran also has to deal with the possible loss of morale and confidence among its proxies and must work hard to salvage its ties with its regional allies.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Soleimani assassination is the restoration of US deterrence. In recent months US creditability reached a low ebb, especially after President Trump reiterated his disapproval of foreign entanglements and costly overseas wars. When Trump called off a strike on Iran at the last minute after the downing of a US drone last June, it risked being interpreted as the president losing his nerve.

Indeed, after members of a pro-Iranian Shia militia attacked the US embassy in Baghdad last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei went so far as to taunt the Americans on his official English language Twitter account, by telling Trump “You can’t do anything”. Soleimani himself was brazen enough to travel to Iraq openly and publicly.

The assassination of Soleimani, along with the decision to send 3,500 US troops to the region sends a message to Iran that there are severe consequences for targeting US interests and that America is no paper tiger. This message will also be heard by allies in the region concerned that the US is in retreat, particularly after the lack of response to Iran’s drone strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last September.

And just as with Mughniyeh’s death over a decade ago, Tehran may find itself hard-pressed to retaliate in the grandiose way that it has promised. Just as importantly, the US has restored its deterrence. Now, however, Washington must ensure that it has a sound and coherent strategy in place in order not to lose both its advantage and creditability in the region.

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Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London.