Around the halls: Experts react to the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani

Iranian demonstrators react during a protest against the assassination of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in front of United Nation office in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

In a drone strike authorized by President Trump early Friday, Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed at Baghdad International Airport. Below, Brookings experts provide their brief analyses on this watershed moment for the Middle East — including what it means for U.S.-Iran relations, for America’s overall position in the Middle East, and more.

Madiha AfzalMadiha Afzal (@MadihaAfzal), David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center for Middle East Policy: What worries me is how much (or little) thought was put into this decision by the Trump administration — and the connection of the strike with it being a re-election year, Trump’s obsession with Barack Obama (and Obama’s killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011), and the beating of war drums to drive American nationalism and distract from his domestic political troubles. This doesn’t require a colorful imagination: In 2011, Trump repeatedly said that Obama would go to war with Iran to get re-elected. Obama obviously didn’t, and the big difference between this strike and the decision that Obama did take in 2011, his bin Laden raid in Pakistan, is that it killed the world’s then-deadliest terrorist and beheaded his organization. And it embarrassed the country that he was found in. It was as clean a decision as a commander-in-chief could have made. Soleimani’s killing, on the other hand, is remarkably messy, because — rightly reviled as he was by many — he represented Iran’s military, and Iran will see this as an action of war. And there will be some form of retaliation. In the end, Trump may end up endangering more American lives through this strike, not fewer.

Ranj AlaaldinRanj Alaaldin (@RanjAlaaldin), Visiting Fellow in the Brookings Doha Center and Director of the Proxy Wars Initiative: Soleimani’s assassination represents a tectonic shift in U.S. policy in Iraq. The complexities of Iraqi politics, the failures of the reconstruction process, and the state-building process in the country more generally has been particularly kind to Shia militia groups, which have thrived as a result of the state’s fragility and a fractious political landscape. The U.S. commitment to defeating terrorist groups like ISIS and its commitment to developing Iraqi state institutions has been tolerant of these groups, premised on the idea that the use of force will do little to rid Iraq of these actors and that it is instead stronger institutions and a functioning Iraqi state with a respected and professionalized military that will eventually suppress Iran’s proxies.

But it is now becoming apparent that the U.S., under the current administration, no longer has the appetite to expend greater resources, time, and indeed American lives for a state-building project that has yielded very limited returns, despite all the U.S. blood and treasure invested in recent years. The immediate implications of this proactive policy aimed at pre-emptively eliminating Iran’s proxies will be felt in Iraq before anywhere else, where we will see a consolidation of power and influence by Iran-aligned actors. There is now unlikely to be any serious prospect of achieving good governance and reform in Iraq, and we may be witnessing the end of Iraq’s fragile democracy.  Soleimani’s assassination represents the death knell of the civilian-led reform movement that has gripped the country in recent months.

Daniel BymanDaniel Byman (@dbyman), Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: As I write in more detail elsewhere, the killing of Soleimani, the long-time head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is likely to prove a watershed in Washington’s relations with Iraq and Iran and will substantially affect the overall U.S. position in the Middle East. The blowback may be huge, and much depends on how well prepared the United States is for Iran’s response and that of its many proxies in the Middle East.

Based on the Trump administration’s record in the region, there is reason to be worried.

It’s hard to overstate Soleimani’s influence. Because Iran’s conventional forces are weak, Tehran often works through militias, terrorist groups, and other proxies to advance its interests abroad. The IRGC takes the lead for many of these operations. In Iraq, and in other countries where Iran plays both a military and political role — such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, as well as with the Palestinians — the IRGC is often the dominant actor in Iran’s foreign policy, or at least an important voice.

In April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of officially designating the IRGC as a terrorist group even though it is an arm of the Iranian state, and thus not a non-state actor, unlike most of the entities on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

Soleimani has been the architect of many of Iran’s most contentious foreign policy issues, and he and the IRGC-QF are responsible for the deaths of many Americans.

The Quds Force, with perhaps between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters in its organization, provides training, weapons, organizational guidance, and other support to a range of pro-Iran groups.

The IRGC, with the Quds Force in the lead, is the key Iranian liaison with the Lebanese Hezbollah, the strongest paramilitary organization in Lebanon — and one that has attacked Israel and the U.S. at Iran’s behest. The Quds Force also works with Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among other nefarious organizations in other countries. When the United States clashed with pro-Iran forces in Iraq, the Quds Force made them far more deadly, providing them after 2005 with sophisticated explosives that could penetrate U.S. armored vehicles, killing almost 200 Americans.

Having been at the helm of the Quds Force since 1998, Soleimani has cultivated a power network in Iran itself and through the IRGC’s many proxies. He is a symbol of Iran’s power, prestige, and reach.

Ali Fathollah-NejadAli Fathollah-Nejad (@AFathollahNejad), Visiting Fellow in the Brookings Doha Center: Through the target killing of Soleimani, Iran’s notorious commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and the personification of the Islamic Republic’s regional policies — along with Iran’s main military man in Iraq, Abu-Mahdi Muhandis — the U.S. has effectively clipped the wings of Iran’s quite successful expansionist regional policies. The Supreme Leader, meanwhile, was forced to descend to a lower level: For the first time ever, he attended a meeting (an emergency one at this point) of the Supreme National Security Council. Thus, the rulers in the Islamic Republic, for understandable reasons, are in a state of shock.

For Tehran to save face, this dramatic U.S. operation demands some urgency to retaliate. However, Tehran doesn’t have any good options — and it knows that. A full-blown war with the U.S. could jeopardize regime survival, and an escalation in the Persian Gulf will deprive Iran of what remains from its decimated oil income. Yet, in Iraq and in Lebanon, there might be chances of some sort of retaliation. In any case, the Pandora’s box has been opened.

Meanwhile, as much as Soleimani was widely revered in Iran as a genius operator, his killing has been a cause of celebration on Iraqi streets and among Syrians, where he is loathed as a chief architect for bringing death and destruction to their homelands.

Jeffrey FeltmanJeffrey Feltman, John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy: While little noticed at the time, Soleimani had a cameo role in a controversial U.N. report in December — as he had in previous reports. On December 10, 2019, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres submitted to the Security Council his eighth report on implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015), the codification into international law of the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and related measures. Given great power divisions, the report tiptoed carefully around the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian violations of Resolution 2231, and questions surrounding ballistic missiles. Also under 2231, which was adopted unanimously and passed under Chapter VII (i.e. with the powers of enforcement) of the U.N. Charter, the Council banned Soleimani from any travel outside of Iran.

With self-incriminating “selfies” taken on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and with glowing articles about his role in Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi media, each 2231 report noted Soleimani’s blatant (but not surprising) disregard for the travel ban. In December, in the dry bureaucratic language characteristic of such reports, Guterres obliquely fingered Iraq for not enforcing that ban. In paragraph 14 of his December report, Guterres noted the following: “Information from Iraqi media outlets suggests that Major General Soleimani has undertaken travel inconsistent with the travel ban provisions of the resolution. I call upon all Member States to diligently implement the restrictive measures imposed on the individuals and entities on the list maintained pursuant to resolution 2231.” A more direct reference followed in paragraph 38: “During the reporting period, information surfaced regarding additional travel by Major General Soleimani. According to Iraqi media outlets, he traveled a number of times to Baghdad in October 2019. The Secretariat has sought clarification from the Permanent Mission of Iraq, and I will report to the Council in due course.”

Tanvi MadanTanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan), Director of the India Project and Senior Fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy: As I write in more detail elsewhere, India’s reaction to the killing of Soleimani came in a carefully worded statement. India will have serious concerns about further escalation. It has vital interests in the Middle East. In the Gulf region alone, India has 8.5 million citizens. This region is a significant source of Indian oil and gas imports (India imports the majority of the oil it consumes), as well as a growing source of investment in the Indian economy. Delhi has also hoped that this region will serve as a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, including through the Iranian port of Chabahar that it is helping develop — and for which it has received a U.S. sanctions exemption. Moreover, parties in this region not only affect developments with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also India’s counterterrorism concerns.

Any U.S.-Iran escalation will complicate these Indian interests. Delhi will be anxious about potential spillover, not just in the broader Middle East, but also elsewhere (depending on the nature of any Iranian retaliation).  If the situation deteriorates further, it could also have implications for India’s equities with Iran and the U.S. To protect these interests, Delhi has walked a tightrope in balancing its relationships with Washington and Tehran (as well as countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel). But any significant escalation could put India under pressure to make choices it does not want to make.

Suzanne Maloney headshotSuzanne Maloney (@MaloneySuzanne), Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy:

As I wrote in the Washington Post today, the long, shape-shifting shadow war between the United States and Iran’s Islamic Republic has taken a pivotal turn with the death of Soleimani, an infamous and iconic Iranian military commander. By killing the architect of Iran’s expanded influence across the Middle East, the Trump administration has escalated simmering tensions with Tehran from an economic onslaught to an act of war that is likely to instigate a dangerous and unpredictable Iranian backlash.

The Quds Force and the Revolutionary Guard have a deep bench of experienced commanders who can assume Soleimani’s responsibilities, and the quick elevation of Soleimani’s long-time deputy, Esmail Qaani, to replace him is meant to reinforce the continuation of business as usual. The Islamic Republic’s endurance three decades after the death of its charismatic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is a testament to its insulation against reliance on any single individual.

There’s little evidence that the Trump administration has mapped out a strategy for managing such a protracted, unpredictable confrontation with Tehran. Soleimani’s death on what has effectively become his home turf in post-Saddam Iraq — alongside a key Iraqi partner — and the capture of leaders of the most powerful pro-Iranian militias in the country has dire implications for U.S. presence there. The strike also leaves the government in Baghdad, already debilitated by months of protests over corruption and Iranian influence, in an even more precarious position. Is there a plan for managing the fallout in Iraq, beyond the hasty call for Americans to flee the country?

The Trump administration would be wise to avoid any precipitous victory laps. There are simply no easy solutions to the challenges posed by Iran. Soleimani’s death will almost inevitably degrade the environment for American interests and allies in the region significantly. Neither Trump nor Tehran may really want a war, but each side has proven unwilling or incapable of detouring from a path that will almost inexorably precipitate a much wider and more costly conflict.

Michael O'Hanlon headshotMichael O’Hanlon (@MichaelEOHanlon), Senior Fellow and Director of Research for Brookings Foreign Policy: As I write in more detail elsewhere, I find it hard to oppose the Trump administration’s decision to target and kill Soleimani. In effect, as my colleagues Dan Byman, Suzanne Maloney, and Bruce Riedel among others have explained, he was the most important military leader in Iran and perhaps the country’s second most powerful leader overall. Soleimani’s machinations had led to the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq (since the Quds force funneled explosively-formed penetrator devices and other technologies to the militias and insurgents that were fighting us there during much of the 2000s and beyond). Killing him was more akin to shooting down the plane of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto in World War II than attacking a civilian leader.

Iran’s lack of restraint in killing Americans also removed one major argument against political assassination in general — the fear of legitimating a form of attack that will then be used against our own country or citizens. While there is clearly a heightened fear of retaliation at this juncture, it was Soleimani, not America, that crossed the assassination threshold first and often — attacking Americans (and others) with abandon. He succeeded earlier Iranian leaders who had done equally heinous things against Americans in Beirut in 1983 and at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia in 1996. America’s history towards Iran is checkered, to be sure, in our support for the Shah before 1979, and in our support for Saddam (at times) during the Iran-Iraq war. But over the last 30 years especially, it is Iran that has used lethal force against us much more than the reverse. And for the last 22 years, Soleimani was the chief plotter and mastermind in much of this. Given the believable intelligence reports that he was planning additional attacks against U.S. assets and personnel in Iraq, and given his central role over the years in many similar atrocities, I cannot object to this U.S. action.

The most pressing matter now is preserving, if at all possible, the U.S. military partnership with Iraq. If we are thrown out of Iraq by that country’s parliament as a result of this action, it will be a net win for Iran, since there will no longer be a balancing foreign power with comparable clout inside the country. It will also leave Iraq more vulnerable to further sectarian strife and/or ISIS and al-Qaida attack. America’s 5,000 troops have played important roles in training, providing air power, providing intelligence, and playing a role of political honest broker that has helped Iraqis of different sectarian groups work together. It may be too late to salvage our role, and our presence, in Iraq. But we should try. Most of all, we should be willing to accept certain restrictions on any future U.S. uses of force within Iraq itself.

Bruce RiedelBruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence: Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly pleased to see its nemesis Iran lose its top commander and best strategist. Soleimani was active in supporting the Houthis against the Saudi kingdom and probably played a key role in the attack last September, which gravely damaged the Abqaiq oil facility. Publicly, the Saudis have called for restraint by all parties.

Inside the royal palace, there is grave concern about what comes next: Where, when, and how will Iran retaliate? The Iranians will certainly seek the ouster of the American presence in Iraq. If they succeed, then the Saudi presence there is also unsustainable. Iran will have consolidated its influence on the kingdom’s northern border. Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Emirates will join the Saudis in nervous apprehension.

In the south, the Saudis have been de-escalating the war with the Houthis. Saudi air strikes have all but stopped, and Houthi drone and missile attacks have halted. Will Tehran now press the Houthis to change course? Late last month, the Houthis unexpectedly threatened a wave of new attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE worse than the Abqaiq attack.

The Saudis also have an internal Shia problem. They remember that the Iranians were behind the deadly 1995 attack on the Americans barracks at the Khobar Towers, working with Saudi Shia and also Hezbollah. For Riyadh, like the rest of the region, it’s a time for acute anxiety.

Headshot of Shibley TelhamiShibley Telhami (@ShibleyTelhami), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: As a Washington Post editorial put it in addressing the crisis in Iraq, even before the death of Soleimani, President Trump “got himself into this mess by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, despite U.N. certifications of Iranian compliance, and launching a massive sanctions campaign that has badly damaged the Iranian economy.” This has set up an impossible situation: Iran could not afford to accept the costs of the administration’s “maximum pressure,” and was bound to keep making the status quo uncomfortable for the United States. And the Trump administration would consequently feel it must respond, but is restrained only by Trump’s seeming instinct to avoid escalation that could lead to possible war with Iran. Add to this the hawkish advisers and regional actors who wouldn’t mind escalation with Iran, and the concern from the outset has been one of slippery slope. What may seem to the president (or to Iran’s leadership) as a limited response to the other’s action may turn out to be more than the other side could tolerate, either strategically or politically, which could set in motion rapid escalation.

It’s not that Iran is likely to go out of its way to escalate; full military confrontation is not in its interest. But Soleimani has been the face of Iran’s policy in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. He has faithful allies who may not be fully under the control of Iran’s leaders. And Iranian leaders themselves, who feel they are already at war given the economic war waged against them, have much at stake with the death of one of the their most influential generals — a symbol of their regional clout. Even Trump’s seemingly steadfast aversion to escalation may not be enough this time around. And even if the day is saved by extraordinary restraint, the very contradictions set in motion by Trump’s early actions on the Iran nuclear deal and expanded sanctions, coupled with Iran’s own contradictions, ensure more crisis ahead.

Tamara Cofman WittesTamara Wittes (@tcwittes), Senior Fellow in the Center on Middle East Policy: Was the Trump administration right to decide that taking out Soleimani is worth the escalatory risk? I don’t know — and there are two specific pieces of information I’d need to help me decide.

The first is what intelligence information the administration had to justify its assertion that the assassination prevented an imminent attack. Soleimani has been involved in targeting American personnel, facilities, and interests for many years, and Iran-linked militias have been sending missiles into Iraqi bases hosting Americans for over a month. So why the need for imminent self-defense at this moment, in this location? On what basis does the administration assess that killing Soleimani will actually prevent a specific attack? This information will matter to the Iraqi government as it determines whether it can swallow such a frontal assault on its sovereignty. It will matter to U.S. allies and partners left blindsided, again, by American action. And members of Congress will be asking these questions as they consider whether to grant the president any additional authority to use force against Iran. The president’s claim of imminent self-defense allows him to justify this assassination under his inherent Article II authority; but should the U.S. and Iran enter an escalatory spiral, it’s unlikely that claim will be unexamined for long.

The second, and in many ways more important unknown is: What’s the administration’s strategic objective in its confrontation with Iran? What does it think this assassination will achieve, beyond relieving the claimed immediate threat? At various points, the Trump administration has put forward widely divergent objectives in its pressure campaign on Iran, including regime change, leverage for renewed negotiations, and deterrence against additional Iranian troublemaking. Does the Trump administration think Soleimani’s death will eviscerate Iran’s expeditionary capabilities in the region? Does it believe the loss of Soleimani will topple an already weakened Iranian government? Does it believe this devastating blow will induce Iran to sue for peace on terms favorable to Washington? Or, as some have suggested, is this blow meant to be a farewell move by the Trump administration before withdrawing from Iraq and Syria — effectively saying to Israel and Arab states: “We’ve killed your ‘big bad,’ now we are out of here.”

Without clarity on American objectives, it will be very difficult for regional and international partners to do other than hedge against a worst-case scenario of wider U.S.-Iran confrontation. And without clarity on American objectives, the Iranians will have little to weigh against their threat perception and desire for revenge.