Few tears will be shed in many parts of the world for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, whose Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ruthlessly spread Iranian influence and contributed to the deaths of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, as well as hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq, over the past decade and a half.
But revenge is not a strategy, and the killing of General Suleimani is a major — and incredibly risky — escalation with Iran, a pivotal country of some 80 million people that has been largely estranged from the United States for 40 years. It will cause more instability and the loss of more innocent lives. Any chances for American diplomacy with Iran are dead for the duration of the Trump presidency — if not longer. Instead of one nuclear proliferation crisis, with North Korea, there will most likely now be two, as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal completely collapses. The Sunni fundamentalists who killed Americans in their homeland — something Iran has not done so far — will rejoice. Russia and China will be happy to see the United States mired in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
It is important to remember who began this spiral. In May 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor at a time when Iran was in full compliance with it. When he did so, the Quds Force and its associated militias in Iraq were fighting the Islamic State in indirect coordination with the American military. The Persian Gulf was quiet.
For a year after the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the status quo prevailed. Then in April 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced what amounted to an embargo on the export of Iranian oil. Shortly afterward, Iran moved from “strategic patience” to resistance and retaliation: first against oil tankers, then against an American drone and in September against Saudi oil facilities. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias started lobbing rockets into the Green Zone and other locations where Americans are based. On Dec. 27, rockets killed an American contractor in Kirkuk, and the United States retaliated with strikes that killed two dozen militia members in Iraq and Syria. Iran-backed militias responded with an attempt to break into the American embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve.
The Pentagon says the decision to kill General Suleimani — and with him the Iraqi commander who oversaw his country’s Shiite militias — was made because General Suleimani was planning more attacks on Americans. But the killing will almost certainly lead Iran to retaliate at a time and place and with a means of its choosing. (Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted early today: “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”) American diplomats and military personnel around the world now need to be even more on guard; civilians could also be targets or collateral damage.
To anyone who has closely followed the rare ups and more-frequent downs of United States-Iran relations for many years, the current situation is tragic. It is also clearly the product of a series of strategic blunders. Few may remember that after the Sept. 11 attacks, General Suleimani worked indirectly with the United States to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and that Iran was the lone Muslim-majority nation to express popular sympathy for the United States. Despite this and Iranian diplomatic assistance in creating a post-Taliban government, President George W. Bush declared Iran part of an “axis of evil.”
General Suleimani became an enemy after the United States invaded Iran’s other neighbor, Iraq, rebuffed an Iranian offer for wide-ranging negotiations and gave protection to the Mujahedeen Khalq, a ruthless opponent of Iran that had been nurtured by Saddam Hussein. Of course, in toppling Mr. Hussein, the United States opened Iraq to deep penetration by Iraqis sheltered and groomed by Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iran became the pivotal player in Baghdad, taking advantage of free elections, which predictably brought to power successive governments sympathetic to Tehran.
Benefiting from its new access to Iraq, Iran gained a land route to Syria where the Quds Force organized the ground forces that, along with Russian air power, kept Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Hussein’s evil twin, in power through eight years of civil war. They worked in tandem with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s first and most successful regional partner.
Killing General Suleimani will not destroy this network of partners and proxies, but it will give them a celebrated new “martyr” to avenge. Both Lebanon and Iraq will experience more violence; the American presence in Iraq will become increasingly untenable; the biggest beneficiaries will be Sunni fundamentalists like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which will be thrilled to see their two biggest enemies coming to blows.
Meanwhile, the 2015 nuclear deal, which was hanging by a thread, will collapse. Iran was preparing to announce new steps out of the deal on Jan. 5. Instead of another incremental measure, Iran might take the North Korea route and announce that it is quitting the Nonproliferation Treaty and expelling inspectors. An Iranian rush toward a bomb would incentivize others in the region, like Saudi Arabia, to acquire nuclear weapons and raise the prospect of a pre-emptive military strike on Iranian facilities by Israel or the United States, adding to the chances of an all-out war.
But the biggest losers will be the long-suffering Iranian people. The Iranian regime will not fall but will be more ruthless than ever, seeing American plots against it around every corner. The regime will outlast President Trump, and so, unfortunately, will the devastation caused by his actions.
Barbara Slavin (@BarbaraSlavin1) directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
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