Will Iran’s Response to the Soleimani Strike Lead to War? What Tehran Is Likely to Do Next
Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, was one of the most influential and popular figures in the Islamic Republic and a particular nemesis of the United States. He led Iran’s campaign to arm and train Shiite militias in Iraq—militias responsible for the deaths of an estimated 600 American troops from 2003 to 2011— and became the chief purveyor of Iranian political influence in Iraq thereafter, most notably through his efforts to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He drove Iran’s policies to arm and support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including by deploying an estimated 50,000 Shiite militia fighters to Syria. He was the point man for Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon, helping to supply the group with missiles and rockets to threaten Israel. He drove Iran’s strategy to arm the Houthis in Yemen. For all these reasons and more, Soleimani was a cult hero in Iran and across the region.
In short, the United States has taken a highly escalatory step in assassinating one of the most important and powerful men in the Middle East.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump argues that Soleimani was a terrorist and that assassinating him was a defensive action that stopped an imminent attack. Both of those assertions may or may not be true, but the United States would never have felt compelled to act against the Iranian general if not for the reckless policy the administration has pursued since it came into office. In May 2018, Trump left the Iran nuclear agreement and adopted a “maximum pressure” policy of economic sanctions on Iran. For a year, Iran responded with restraint in an effort to isolate the United States diplomatically and win economic concessions from other parties to the nuclear agreement.
But the restrained approach failed to yield material benefits. By May 2019, Tehran had chosen instead to breach the agreement and escalate tensions across the region. First came Iranian mine attacks against international shipping in May and June. Then Iran shot down a U.S. drone, nearly touching off an open conflict with the United States. In September, Iranian missiles struck the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia—arguably the most important piece of oil infrastructure in the world. Shiite militia groups began launching rockets at U.S. bases in Iraq, ultimately leading to the death of an American contractor last week. Retaliatory U.S. strikes eventually brought us to the Soleimani assassination.
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