The Death of Qasem Suleimani Will Lead to Violence in the Region, Chaos in Iraq
Suleimani pictured in February 2016. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images
“The game has changed.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Thursday made what, at the time, seemed to be a warning. Within twelve hours, it turned into a prediction, with one crucial flaw — this is not a game. In less than a week, the standoff between the U.S. and Iran has zoomed from what seemed to be a somewhat calibrated exchange of rockets, cyberattacks, and rhetoric, to the killing of a man reckoned to be Iran’s second-most powerful military official, plunging military and counter-terrorism experts into worrying about nasty scenarios from full-out regional war to terrorist retaliation against Americans abroad or at home.
What seems to have happened Friday morning in Baghdad involved the Iran-backed Iraqi militia responsible for attacking the U.S. embassy earlier this week firing off some more rockets at U.S. installations — threatening behavior, but not especially unusual. U.S. forces responded by firing back, not at the rocket launchers, but at the motorcade of the militia’s deputy leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mahandis — who had personally participated in the embassy attack. The Iranian visitors he was escorting were also killed, and they included (as U.S. intelligence surely knew) a rather special guest.
As the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani was considered by many to be more powerful than the Iranian foreign minister. Your columnist cannot resist reminding you that in 2015, then-candidate Trump did not know who Suleimani was, had to be prompted in a friendly interview, and then confused the Quds Force (the IRGC’s secretive unit charged with clandestine operations) with U.S. allies the Kurds. At the time, Trump said the names “would all be changed” by the time he took office. Close to five years later, here we are.
As the head of Iran’s elite paramilitary forces and the conduit to the allied militias Iran supports from Yemen and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, Suleimani has the deaths of hundreds of Americans on his hands. Reportedly, past US administrations had considered assassinating him and opted not to — because of the profound response that was expected to unleash from Tehran and, perhaps, because he was believed to be a careful and strategic character whom Washington might revile, but with whom it could also communicate.
Instead, here we are. What may come next?
Sunni Iraqis, and some of the young demonstrators who resent Iranian influence in their country, are rejoicing. But the government depends on Iranian political and financial support even as it tries to balance the U.S influence. If one or both sides try to force it to choose, as they surely will, more violence and chaos — including more targeting of Americans, not less — is the likely outcome. Commentators are predicting Iraq may ask the U.S. to remove its forces, which would be a setback not just for the Trump administration’s effort to put military pressure on Iran, but also for its continuing effort to contain remnants of ISIS still active in the Iranian-Syrian borderlands.
Iran will see no choice but to retaliate for the killing of an official this senior, and it has plenty of options. Its proxies can target Americans and allied governments from Saudi Arabia to Israel. Hezbollah, in particular, is considered the world’s most effective non-state armed force. It and Iran can surely target Americans anywhere in the region. Before the sun was up Friday, Israel announced it was moving forces north to counter potential Iranian responses.
Over the decades, Hezbollah has both pulled off some terrifying acts of violence far afield — perhaps most vividly, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 85. It has also had some awkward failures, such as an alleged plot to blow up a Washington, D.C. restaurant frequented by the Saudi ambassador (and nowadays by Ivanka and Jared). How much should we worry about such attacks on U.S. soil? More than we did last week.
Some of the consequences may be far-afield from the evening’s attack. Former Defense Department official Ilan Goldenberg wonders about Iran withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and re-starting its bomb program in earnest. Americans of Middle Eastern origin worry about yet more restrictions on travel and immigration, and yet more suspicion, humiliation, and prejudice, both at the border and in everyday life.
And then there’s the small matter of U.S. law and the Constitution. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy quickly reminded us that Congress is required to approve assassinations of senior foreign officials — or any act of war that is not immediate self-defense.
The Pentagon said that this attack was intended to deter future assaults. Many experts believe it will have the opposite effect; and certainly that is the kind of initiative that lawyers intended to go before Congress. That may just be one more of the night’s casualties, and not even the biggest one — the prize for that may go to the hope that the U.S.-Iran hostilities could be small and managed, without major losses of life.