Immediately after the Pentagon confirmed Thursday night that an American military airstrike in Iraq had killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, a political debate broke out back home. This was either a decisive, necessary U.S. operation — or a dangerous gambit.
As with many actions undertaken by President Donald Trump, assessments depend greatly on how much faith one places in Trump’s judgment. Issues of national security shouldn’t be partisan; protecting the country should be everyone’s business. But Trump’s blend of braggadocio and unorthodox impulses makes him appear either bold or irresponsible.
Statements from the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House suggested the U.S. military had justification for taking out Soleimani, the Iranian military’s general in charge of murderous mischief and unquestionably an enemy of the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a planned attack on Americans had been “imminent” before the drone strike.
The Pentagon said it went after Soleimani for “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” That sounds plausible, though gauging justification for Soleimani’s death would be easier if the Pentagon or the State Department provide more details about such plans.
What’s especially hard to assess is whether eliminating a powerful military adversary will make the Middle East a safer or a more dangerous place for Americans and American interests. Tehran has already vowed to retaliate, and in the short term, the Iranian general’s death raises the risk for U.S. troops, government workers and even civilians in Iraq and other parts of the region. In the long term, though, Soleimani’s death hurts Iran because he was the mastermind of Iranian adventurism.
Soleimani had a long history of American blood on his hands. His forces in Iraq were responsible for killing hundreds of American troops during the Iraq war. Soleimani also supported the rise of Hezbollah as a Lebanon-based terrorist organization, and he protected Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. According to the Pentagon, in recent months Soleimani orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq, including the Dec. 27 attack that killed an American contractor.
The United States and Iran have been in a standoff for years. The highest priority has been to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions, but Iran’s shadowy military moves represent an ongoing threat to U.S. security and interests across the Middle East.
In recent months, Iran has stepped up its provocation campaign, largely in response to the sanctions squeeze that Trump has put on Tehran, part of a broad effort to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iranian mine attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz were followed by missile strikes on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.
Iran undoubtedly is weaker now that Soleimani is dead. And there’s other bleak news for Tehran in this assault: the realization that U.S. intelligence was able to penetrate Soleimani’s security bubble and hit him as he was leaving Baghdad’s main airport.
What’s unanswerable at this point: Does killing Soleimani lead to retaliatory strikes by Iran that demand reciprocal responses from the U.S., or can a perilous escalation be avoided? Trump issued a military order to take out a dangerous Iranian military leader. What Trump does next will be just as crucial.