Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The case against killing Qassem Soleimani

Mourners in Tehran protest the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on January 4, 2020. | Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Why Trump’s decision to target the Iranian military commander was a mistake, explained by an expert.

This is the first of a two-part series examining the arguments for and against the Trump administration’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Read the case for the targeting of Soleimani here.

Last Thursday, the Trump administration authorized a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary forces and one of the most powerful men in the country.

The attack has ignited a debate about whether it was legal and worth the risk. Previous administrations had the opportunity to take out Soleimani and chose not to, mostly because of concerns that it would lead to a series of dangerous escalations on both sides.

Prominent Republicans like Texas Rep. Will Hurd have defended the strike, claiming Soleimani had plenty of American blood on his hands and posed an immediate and continuing danger.

 Pool/Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, on September 18, 2016.

Bilal Saab, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, told Vox that America was already locked in a cycle of violence with Iran and there were no guarantees that the Iranians weren’t going to escalate in any case, so eliminating Soleimani may have been worth the risk.

The most common objection on the other side, apart from the questions of legality, is that it was an unnecessary and extremely dangerous move that risked catapulting the two countries into a full-scale war. There’s also the possibility that Iran will accelerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I spoke with Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation think tank, to hear the best case against the attack.I wanted to know why she thought it was a mistake to kill Soleimani, how she responded to detractors, and what she thinks will happen next.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

(Author’s note: I spoke to Esfandiary just a few hours before Iran retaliated on Tuesday night by firing missiles at US military targets in Iraq. I contacted her again after to see if Iran’s response had altered her views. Her answer is included at the end.)

Sean Illing

What would you say is the most immediate consequence of Trump’s decision to authorize the strike against Soleimani?

Dina Esfandiary

The first consequence, and the one that we’ve seen already in the last couple of days, is domestic. The Iranian population has been facing severe economic sanctions from the US over the last year or so, but before that the Iranian people had been displaying significant discontent with their own government. We saw this recently with protests in November.

That has all taken a back burner now and we’ve seen a huge show of unity across the political spectrum of Iranians in response to the killing [of Soleimani]. They may not be happy with their current government, but they’d rather stick with that when faced with an external attack like this.

Sean Illing

Pretty much everyone agrees that Soleimani was a malicious actor who was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and that we’re safer with him gone. So why not eliminate the threat if the opportunity was there?

Dina Esfandiary

Because the problem with doing that is that you’ve unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems for Americans in the region. The Iranians have to retaliate at some point. And I suspect that what they’re now doing is putting their heads together to figure out the best way to do that without risking an all-out conventional war against the US, which they would lose.

I’d also say that, sure, not having Soleimani around is great, but Iran’s paramilitary force is not a one-man show. So now you have this entire organization that will basically be given free rein to go out and target American troops in the region, which they may very well do.

“This is definitely not the end. Iran is known for playing the long game, and that’s what it will do”

Sean Illing

If it’s true that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the region, do we have an imperative to neutralize their ability to carry out that policy?

Dina Esfandiary

The United States should contain Iran, but containing Iran requires much more than brazenly targeting high-level Iranian officials, which does nothing but create anger both on an official level in Iran but also among the Iranian population.

This matters because to have any chance at long-term success, Americans need to win the support of the Iranian people. At the very least, the US should be trying to foster a better relationship with Iranians.

So targeting high-level Iranian officials doesn’t really achieve anything other than making it all more dangerous — because on top of that, you’re then giving Iran additional motivation to turn around and target US assets and US troops in the region.

The US just announced that it was going to deploy an additional 3,000 or 3,500 troops. All I see is an additional 3,000 targets for Iranians. And I suspect that’s how Iran is going to view it as well.

 Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
Mourners gather to pay homage to Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, on January 6, 2020.

Sean Illing

One argument I’ve heard is that the Trump administration set a red line by warning the Iranian regime not to kill any more Americans, and then the regime crossed it by killing an American contractor. Does the US have an obligation to enforce a red line like that once it’s been drawn?

Dina Esfandiary

I do think that the US has an obligation to enforce that kind of a red line. But I also believe that it could have done without killing General Soleimani, which ultimately will end up going against American objectives. But yes, when a red line is set, you’re going to have to uphold that. Otherwise, there’s no point in setting a red line to begin with. And that’s what we saw with President Obama’s red line in Syria.

Even Trump, throughout the last few months, made statement after statement saying that Iran shouldn’t do this and shouldn’t do that and that we’d to respond to it. But ultimately, when Iran shot down a US drone a few months ago, or targeted oil tankers, or more recently attacked Saudi oil facilities in the region, the US didn’t really respond very forcefully.

And so Iran did what it does best, which is testing the ground to see what it can get away with and how much it can actually escalate.

Sean Illing

Is there a case to be made that Iran invited this escalation by showing little restraint in killing Americans, not just recently but over the last few decades?

Dina Esfandiary

The anti-American stance of the Iranian government is absolutely problematic. It was problematic when the Islamic revolution happened in 1979 and it still is today. The only difference between then and now is that the Iranian system has become significantly more pragmatic in the way that it pursues its goals.

The problem is that the latest spate of Iranian aggression has been the direct result of President Trump removing the US from the 2015 nuclear deal. And then President Trump embarking on this wide maximum-pressure campaign against the Iranians.

So if you look at it from Iran’s perspective, and particularly from the perspective of everyday Iranians, they don’t really understand why they’re now facing this situation today. The Iranian people believe that we made our concessions, we joined the nuclear deal, we then implemented the nuclear deal, and yet a few years after that, we’re facing some of the most dire sanctions and dire consequences that we have faced in a long time.

So the Iranian people don’t really understand why this is happening to them, and it’s fomenting anti-Americanism. The killing of Soleimani will only accelerate this.

Sean Illing

Another argument is that Iran has not been deterred by any of our previous actions, so an escalation of some kind was necessary. Do you buy that?

Dina Esfandiary

Not at all. I actually think Iran has been deterred by previous efforts to contain it. And more importantly, Iran has demonstrated that when faced with the option to improve its own situation, it is willing to compromise. So the nuclear deal openly demonstrated that Iran was willing to compromise and we were able to contain Iran’s nuclear program for a good chunk of time.

There was no reason why the US could not have engaged Iran in further discussions after the nuclear deal had been implemented. It has been shown time and again that engagement with Iran is the best way to ensure that it is contained, rather than increasing pressure and manipulative threats where all Iran does is feel cornered and then lashes out.

“The problem is that there will be an escalation of tensions in the region — and once that happens, there is no off-ramp”

Sean Illing

Rep. Will Hurd defended the killing of Soleimani by saying that whoever replaces him at the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will now be forced to look over his shoulder, and that that is its own kind of deterrent. How do you respond to that?

Dina Esfandiary

I disagree. I think that the guys that are part of the Revolutionary Guards are there because they’re pursuing a cause and they believe in that cause. On top of that, they are military men. They’re used to being on the battlefield. They’re used to looking over their shoulder. A threat from an American politician isn’t going to change that.

Sean Illing

There’s another argument that says the US can’t really do anything to stop Iran from attacking it in small-scale ways, like deploying its proxies in Iraq, but that killing Soleimani is so severe that it may prevent Iran from considering larger-scale attacks, like shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or staging a big attack on Americans. Of course, you could argue the exact opposite, but I’m curious how you respond to this point?

Dina Esfandiary

Iran has not done anything big or catastrophic. It has not targeted Americans in a drastic manner. It has not closed the Strait of Hormuz even though it has constantly threatened to do it. The Iranian government knows that conventionally it’s much weaker than the United States. There is no way that the Iranian government is willing to engage in a conventional, full-scale war with the US, because it knows it would lose.

So Iran does what Iran does best, which is lash out on a small scale in different arenas. That won’t result in heavy losses for the US, but it will be a nuisance to Americans. And now that the red line of targeting American lives has been crossed and the US has assassinated Soleimani, it now means that all US troops in the region are fair game.

Sean Illing

What about the case that killing Soleimani means undercutting the regime’s aggressive expansionist policy in the Middle East — is there at least a strategic defense of the decision on that front?

Dina Esfandiary

Sadly, no. Because the Revolutionary Guards are not a one-man show. Soleimani has left big shoes to fill, yes. He built his career on personal relationships on the ground in the region, which is part of the reason why he was so successful. He was certainly an astute military strategist and was remarkably effective, but he’s not irreplaceable.

And the person who has been appointed to take over from him was his deputy. So he has intimate knowledge of how Soleimani worked, presumably went on missions with him, so may already know some of the people that Soleimani had built relationships with.

He will face a challenge in terms of building those same personal relations that Soleimani had built. But I think that it’s a challenge that can be overcome relatively easily and he will have at his disposal the means of the Revolutionary Guards, who are quite keen to ensure that there’s continuity in Iranian policy in the region.

 Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua via Getty Images
A mourner kisses the picture of late Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a protest in Sanaa, Yemen, on January 6, 2020.

Sean Illing

The administration has stated that Soleimani represented an imminent threat. If it’s true — and I want to emphasize the “if” — that Soleimani was an imminent threat, would that change your opinion at all?

Dina Esfandiary

I don’t think so. His assassination was always going to make the situation in the region more unstable, more uncertain. Had there really been an imminent attack planned on the US, then I trust that the US would have found another way to ensure that that attack did not happen.

And I’m sure there would’ve been other ways to do it besides assassinating Soleimani. If, after all, you can assassinate him, I presume you could also grab and detain him. So there are likely other ways to have prevented the attack.

Sean Illing

So how do you expect this situation to unfold over the coming weeks and months?

Dina Esfandiary

I don’t think that we’re going to end up in a scenario where there’s going to be an all-out conventional war between the US and Iran. I am hoping that cooler heads prevail in Tehran, if for no other reason than they don’t want to lose a war.

The problem is that there will be an escalation of tensions in the region — and once that happens, there is no off-ramp. And there’s no plausible scenario in which Iranian officials would contemplate dialogue with the US. Now that Soleimani has been assassinated, any Iranian official that sought compromise with the US would be signing his own death warrant politically — and maybe even literally. So how do we stop this from spiraling out of control?

I could perhaps foresee a situation where there is a mediator that brings the US and Iran together, but again, that’s going to be very, very difficult for Iran. So the problem isn’t so much that things are going to go bang tomorrow; it’s that there’s going to be a sustained increase of tensions in the region without an off-ramp to stop it.

Below are Esfandiary’s responses to additional questions I asked her following the Iranian strikes against the US in Iraq on January 7.

Sean Illing

Now that Iran has retaliated with a missile attack on US military targets in Iraq, does that change your views at all?

Dina Esfandiary

No, it doesn’t. If anything, it just highlights why it was the wrong course of action for President Trump to take.

The missile strikes were in response to the assassination of Soleimani, and it was inevitable that Iran would do something like this, because it could not leave the US measure unpunished — especially after the large crowds of Iranians we saw for Soleimani’s funeral.

Iran ensured its reaction would demonstrate its capability to target US assets in the region but thankfully resulted in no loss of life, giving President Trump an off-ramp from escalation.

Sean Illing

Do you expect more retaliation down the road from Iran? Or do you think this might end the cycle of escalation?

Dina Esfandiary

This is definitely not the end. Iran is known for playing the long game, and that’s what it will do. That doesn’t mean it will be on the same scale as the attacks we saw last night, but it won’t stop.

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