Few people in the West will mourn the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, a key part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week. Soleimani was instrumental in extending Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East, setting up military proxies in the region and the mastermind of terror attacks against Tehran’s enemies. He has long been a thorn in the side of U.S. presidents, but until last week none was willing to risk the dangers that might follow his killing.
Soleimani was considered the most powerful military figure in the Middle East. He established a network of militias throughout the region that aligned behind Iran. Those forces helped him become a virtual kingmaker in Lebanon and Iraq, and to challenge the Islamic State group — one of whose primary targets were Shiites throughout the region — as well as the United States when it overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He was considered responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed by bombs provided to local militias and insurgents by the Quds Force. His successes made him Iran’s second most powerful leader.
Successive U.S. administrations tracked Soleimani, but each ultimately decided to stay its hand, concluding that striking him was not worth the blowback. Pentagon officials were said to be stunned when U.S. President Donald Trump opted to hit Soleimani, one of many options provided to the president to retaliate for the killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iranian demonstrators days earlier.
The U.S. has offered a series of justifications for the killing, a drone strike on a convoy that had just left Baghdad airport. Trump said Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks on U.S. diplomats and military personnel, language echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Department of Defense said the attack was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” Subsequent reporting suggests that the threat may have been inflated. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, said the administration’s warning “prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.
Initial reaction to the killing suggests that the arguments that convinced Trump’s predecessors may have been the wiser course. Significantly, Iran is united over Soleimani’s death. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in an outpouring of anger and grief; two months ago, many of those same people were protesting the government’s disastrous economic policies, forcing the Revolutionary Guard Forces to intervene and reportedly kill hundreds. Anger once aimed at the Tehran government has been redirected toward the U.S.
Then on Sunday, Tehran announced that it is withdrawing from the 2015 multilateral agreement to cap its nuclear program, a move that it had hesitated to make despite U.S. withdrawal last year. Soleimani’s killing ended that reluctance. (Iran said it would return to the pact if the U.S. ended sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in violation of the deal, putting the responsibility on U.S. shoulders.) Soon after, the Iraqi Parliament, anger over the violation of its sovereignty by a drone strike on its soil, passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. Iran could ask for no more gratifying result than the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, a move that would leave the country susceptible to Tehran’s influence.
More immediate is the cycle of retaliation, a spiral that has already begun. Immediately after the attack, Gen. Hossein Salami, leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, promised “to take revenge” and to “set ablaze” places where Americans and their allies live. Iran reportedly has a list of 13 scenarios with which it can respond — and began working down that list Wednesday with an attack by more than a dozen missiles on two military facilities in Iraq.
Trump, in turn, warned that he has his own list of 52 targets, some of which include cultural sites. (Striking them would be a war crime, and he walked back that threat after resistance from the Pentagon.) Tit-for-tat attacks will spark regional instability and risk war. Notably, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps one of the people most gratified to see Soleimani gone, distanced his country from the attack, calling it “an American event,” adding “we were not involved and should not be dragged into it.”
Finally, killing someone of Soleimani’s rank and stature threatens to set a dangerous precedent. While many in the West considered him a terrorist, he was also a senior Iranian government official. Killing him could legitimate state-sponsored strikes against officials in other governments, unleashing a cycle of violence that has been off-limits, even in the volatile and bloody Middle East.
In Japan, which gets 90 percent of its oil from the Middle East, alarms are ringing. Instability will raise energy prices and raise the value of the yen, a currency that often appreciates during a crisis. It upends Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic campaign to find common ground between the U.S. and Iran: Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Tokyo last month was one piece of that project. To its credit, Tokyo remains committed to the deployment of Maritime Self-Defense Force assets to the region later this month for intelligence collection.
Japan will be whipsawed by forces beyond its control. The Trump administration has made Iran a nemesis and target since it took office. It considers Tehran the primary source of instability in the Middle East and aims to contain its influence. Trump wants to terminate the 2015 nuclear deal agreed by his predecessor and has aggressively promoted measures to squeeze the Iran government to force concessions. Iran has responded with a series of provocations of its own, which validates fears of a rising series of provocations and a real risk of war. Missing from all this is evidence of a genuine strategy to achieve U.S. objectives. Trump is acting tough in hope that a show of determination will deter Iran. Hope is not a strategy.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director and a visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University and a senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”