The assassination last week of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the chief mastermind of Iranian aggression and terror efforts, caused little sorrow among those who have watched Iran’s expansion and its heated threats against Israel, the U.S., and Western allies. But after learning that Soleimani had been killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport, we were left with two questions: Why now and what next? Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not provided satisfactory answers to either question.
Soleimani was the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, once designated a terrorist organization by the United States. He was remarkably charismatic and effective. He was responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq. He commanded forces in Beirut that fought against Israel during the Second Lebanon War. And he was accused of overseeing agents who tried but failed to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. According to the Defense Department, he also masterminded attacks, including the recent one on a base in Iraq on Dec. 22, resulting in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel.
In explaining the timing of the targeted killing, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” Similar accusations were made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And President Trump claimed, “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” But none of them offered any proof.
While the explanations sound plausible, we just don’t know. And we also don’t know the extent to which the administration considered the likely consequences of the killing of Iran’s new hero-turned-martyr, or Iran’s predictable effort to restore its stature in the region. But we do know that there will be blowback.
Iranian missiles cannot reach the United States. But they can reach Israel. That concern was part of the protection baked in to the now-abandoned Iran nuclear agreement, which President Trump tore up in favor of pressuring Iran through increased economic sanctions. So now, with increased economic sanctions, domestic unrest, and the humiliating assassination of Soleimani, Iran is moving forward with its nuclear preparations, and seeking to restore its dignity through aggressive and bellicose threats against the West, while drawing a big target around “Tel Aviv.” According to most analysts, it isn’t a question of whether Iran will retaliate — it is simply of question of when, where, and how forcefully the retaliation will come.
Trump ran for office decrying America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East, and pledged to end them. In light of the provocative recent developments, we don’t see the path toward Trump’s announced goal. And the revelation last weekend that 3,500 more U.S. troops were being deployed to the Middle East makes peace even less likely.
While we don’t mourn Soleimani’s death, we would like more information from the administration about its plan. Let’s hope that is offered soon.