The U.S. Versus Iran A Dangerous New Era in the Middle East
U.S. President Donald Trump was determined to get revenge. But on Dec. 28, he still wasn't sure exactly how to go about it. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley traveled from Washington, D.C. to Florida, where Trump was vacationing in his luxury property, Mar-a-Lago. Outside, tourists were strolling along the beach. Inside, U.S. leadership was discussing how best to effectively punish Iran.
The day before, Tehran allies had carried out a rocket attack on a military base in northern Iraq, killing an American. The U.S. was certain that Tehran had ordered Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Shiite militias Iran cooperates with, to carry out the assault.
U.S. military leaders prepared a retaliatory attack and presented Trump with several options, most of them conventional military targets such as, according to an account in the New York Times, ships, missile facilities or Kataib Hezbollah positions. But as they generally do, the Pentagon officials also included a more extreme option: killing General Qassem Soleimani, the second-most powerful man in Iran and the country's chief military strategist.
Soleimani had long been considered untouchable due to his senior position in Tehran. As commander of the Quds Force, he was in large part responsible for Iranian activities in the Middle East. Trump's predecessors in the White House, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had both rejected the idea of killing Soleimani due to the very real risk of it triggering an uncontrollable war with Iran.
Trump, too, was initially wary of making such a move, instead authorizing the Air Force to bomb Kataib Hezbollah positions on Dec. 29. But that did little to quell the burgeoning crisis. On the contrary, Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad two days later, again likely at the behest of Iranian leaders.
Trump was furious as he followed the events on television. The images were reminiscent of the 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the American ambassador. Back then, the Republicans tried to pin responsibility for the attack on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On Jan. 2, Trump then made a decision that surprised even his closest advisers: He ordered the killing of Soleimani. It was the most extreme of the options available to the president and one that had, until then, only been discussed in largely theoretical terms in the Pentagon.
It was a momentous decision, the most important foreign policy move of his tenure thus far, and one with deep and unpredictable implications for the Middle East and beyond. And he did so, according to U.S. media, without consulting his Iran experts – an impulsive decision. Just hours later, Soleimani was dead, killed by an American drone.
Commander in Chief Trump and other senior officials in the Situation Room of the White House: The decision to assassinate Soleimani was the most important foreign policy move of his tenure thus far, and one with deep and unpredictable implications for the Middle East and beyond.Foto: Handout/ Getty Images
Allies and enemies of America alike were taken aback by the move. Many experts saw the killing of a general from a country with which the U.S. was not officially at war to be a potential violation of international law. In Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, Shiite demonstrators vowed to take revenge, while in Iran itself, leaders proclaimed a three-day mourning period, during which millions of Iranians took to the streets in memory of the "martyr."
The killing of Soleimani marks the beginning of a new and dangerous era in the Middle East, in which traditional rules of waging war no longer apply, with eye-for-an-eye logic once again pushed to the fore. Are we on the eve of open warfare between Iran and the U.S.? Below the surface, the conflict has long since begun. Instead of being fought by regular military forces, it is a kind of proxy war led by a changing cast of actors on a variety of stages.
On Wednesday, Iran carried out its official act of retaliation, firing two dozen rockets at two military bases in Iraq. It was a limited attack and there were no casualties, with Iran apparently opting to avoid a dramatic escalation of the conflict for now. Nevertheless, it has entered a new phase.
Just how quickly the situation can spin out of control can be seen by the crash of the Kyiv-bound Boeing 737 just after takeoff in Iran on Wednesday. Leading Western intelligence officials believe it was accidentally shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. A total of 176 people died in the crash, 63 of them citizens of Canada.
Should Iran choose to escalate its shadow war with the U.S., it can rely on the extensive network of militia groups Soleimani developed in the Middle East. Hezbollah in Lebanon, in particular, has demonstrated its ability to carry out terrorist attacks far beyond the region.
But aside from threats of military attack, Trump has very few options for fighting back against Iranian aggression. His sanctions against Tehran, part of the White House's "maximum pressure" strategy, have not managed to bring the country to its knees. Indeed, former U.S. government adviser Vali Nasr argues that the killing of Soleimani was essentially an admission by Trump that exerting economic pressure on Iran has not worked. "Now, the president is caught in a spiral that is moving more and more towards war," Nasr says. "And he has no exit strategy." The nuclear deal that Obama, the EU, Russia and China negotiated with Iran is as good as dead.
Herfried Münkler, a political scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin, says the situation is reminiscent of the Thirty Year's War. The conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites, the border disputes, the hegemonial aspirations of many powers and the internal social conflicts in the face of modernization: All of that, Münkler says, helps form an almost insoluble tangle of tensions.
Meanwhile, America's influence in the Middle East continues to erode. Following Soleimani’s killing, the Iraqi parliament asked the U.S. military to leave the country and NATO immediately moved to temporarily remove troops from the country. The vacuum could be filled by international powers such as Russia, or even by terrorist organizations like Islamic State. And should the U.S. pull back from the region, it would mean Soleimani managed to reach his goal after all.
The General's Legacy
Soleimani's formative period took place during the horrific carnage resulting from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980. The war ended with a ceasefire eight years later, after hundreds of thousands of casualties.
Soleimani was in his early 20s when his career took off as a result of the war. He was the commanding officer for a Revolutionary Guard unit from his home province of Kerman. Valued for his courage and tactical abilities, he later took charge of an entire division. Still, he saw huge numbers of his men die at the front, with military leaders repeatedly ordering their men to advance through minefields in the face of Iraqi machine-gun fire.
The lesson Soleimani drew from the violence was clear: Never again should so many men be sacrificed for so little gain. Iran would continue to wage war – after all, both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. had supported Saddam's invasion. But the use of conventional forces resulted in such terrible losses that the young Iranian commander vowed to avoid such open warfare in the future.
The Revolutionary Guard (known in Iran as the Pasdaran) – to which the Quds Force also belongs – was created in 1979 by the revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Initially, it was supposed to support revolutions in other countries, a goal that gave rise to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s.
When Qassem Soleimani took command of the Quds Force in 1998, though, he set about turning it into the perfect tool for bringing other countries under his control. He created a terror apparatus that will continue to operate even now that Soleimani himself is dead.
Wherever Shiites live, a network of schools, aid organizations and religious seminars sprang up to generate popular support, recruit fighters and develop militias. Faith and money were used to cement loyalty. In doing so, Soleimani leveraged age-old animosities between Sunnis and Shiites, stoking hatred as a tool for reaching his goals. But his pragmatism also led him to cooperate with Sunni groups when necessary.
Soleimani himself was not a particularly devout person, says Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009. Crocker occasionally interacted with the Quds Force commander via emissaries and he says that religion was not a primary incentive for Soleimani and that he only occasionally visited the mosque. His primary motivations were rooted in nationalism, says Crocker, and the love of battle.
Much like the Pasdaran, which developed its own economic empire in Iran, Soleimani's proxy in Iraq began in 2010, if not earlier, to divert part of the billions in income from Iraqi oil exports into the coffers of the Quds Force. Slowly but surely – sometimes under wraps and sometimes more openly – the power of Soleimani's surrogates grew since the turn of the millennium.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has become a state within a state. No government in Beirut has been able to do much about it, despite significant pressure from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. When the Lebanese government in May 2008 tried to take back control of the Beirut airport and the country's mobile phone network from Hezbollah, the militia paralyzed the capital city for several days.
In western Afghanistan, Iran began infiltrating government institutions in 2010, if not before. They also started using their own militia groups to attack U.S. military bases and infrastructure projects, such as the construction site of a dam that could have compromised Iran’s water supply.
In Iraq, which remains Iran's most important neighbor due to its Shiite majority and oil wealth, Shiite militias sprang up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Those units spent years waging a shadow war against U.S. troops, ultimately killing around 600 of them.
But it was the Iranian engagement in Syria starting in 2012 that showed just what Soleimani's military power was capable of. At the time, the dictatorship of Bashar Assad was facing collapse and was only able to rely on its own Alawite minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population.
To save Iran's long-time ally, the Quds Force commander sent Hezbollah into Syria, followed by tens of thousands of fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Weapons, munitions and replacement parts were flown into the country via Iraq, helping prop up Assad until Russia's air force entered the fight in fall 2015, a move that irrevocably turned the tide in the Syrian dictator's favor.
Soleimani's shadow army had, by then, developed into a multinational fighting force that could mobilize a huge number of troops in an extremely short amount of time. And the use of foreign mercenaries has provided Iranian strategists with a decisive advantage: It has allowed Tehran to sidestep responsibility. Aside from professional Pasdaran operatives, no Iranians are allowed to fight alongside the foreign militias. The model has proven to be extremely advantageous by allowing the Iranian leadership to avoid interminable internal debates over foreign interventions and by not having to deal with the irate family members of those killed in battle.
Soleimani himself was long extremely careful to avoid attracting any attention when travelling through the Middle East. He was a phantom: Everyone knew how important he was, but hardly anyone had ever actually seen him.
Soleimani only ceased being so paranoid about his safety in recent years. Photos of him began making the rounds, showing him at the front in Syria, in Beirut suburbs or at the seat of government in Baghdad. Slowly, his image as a shadowy military mastermind turned into one more comparable to that of a pop star. Even many regime opponents saw him as a man protecting Iran from dangers such as Islamic State, which had rapidly expanded its influence across Iraq and Syria.
But as effective as Soleimani's strategy was, Iranian imperialism recently reached its limits. In Yemen, a stalemate developed between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and forces supported by Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s economy has collapsed. In Iraq, thousands recently took to the streets over several weeks to protest against their own government's corruption and against Iranian hegemony in their country.
In October, Soleimani met with Shiite allies on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad to discuss how the popular uprising could be put down. Iraqi officials told Reuters that Soleimani chose a radical and extremely risky course of action: He instructed Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other militia leaders to provoke an American military intervention in Iraq by way of attacks on U.S. facilities in the country. The hope was that doing so would divert the anger of the Iraqi populace against the Americans.
If the story told by the Iraqi officials is accurate, then Soleimani ordered exactly the series of attacks that day in October that would lead to his death at the hands of the U.S. three months later.
There are competing accounts for why Soleimani flew back to Baghdad on the night of Jan. 2-3. The U.S. government claims he was in the process of planning additional attacks targeting U.S. citizens. Iraq's interim prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, by contrast, says the general had wanted to discuss a peace offer from Saudi Arabia with him.
When Soleimani landed in Baghdad, the Kataib Hezbollah leader was at the airport waiting for him. Some consider him to be the man behind the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. According to the Guardian, Soleimani and his entourage were initially brought to the airport's VIP area in a Toyota Avalon and a Hyundai Starex minibus. They then intended to head onwards to the city center.
The convoy hadn't even left the grounds of the airport when the rockets began raining down at around 1 a.m. local time. Soleimani and his companions, including his son-in-law and Muhandis, were killed instantly. Soleimani's body could only be identified thanks to a ruby ring he was wearing.
Trump and the Hawks
The U.S. and Iran have been enemies for decades. During the Cold War, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and handed absolute power to the Shah. Since 1979, when Islamists came to power in the form of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the conflict between Washington and Tehran has been more or less out in the open.
Trump's predecessor Barack Obama undertook what has thus far been the most earnest attempt to defuse hostilities. Together with the Europeans, he negotiated a treaty with Tehran that promised to loosen sanctions on them in exchange for Iran putting its nuclear program on ice. But even during the presidential campaign in 2016, Trump made it clear that he was not a fan of the deal.
When Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, he was initially surrounded by supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged him not to back away from the agreement. When Mattis was asked during Oct. 3, 2017, Senate testimony whether he believed the nuclear deal was in America's best interests, he responded: "Yes, senator, I do."
Trump found himself facing a dilemma: He wanted to force his will onto Iran, but was wary of military conflict. And for months, nothing much happened. Brian Hook, appointed as the U.S. special representative to Iran, gave the Europeans the impression that Trump was willing to renegotiate parts of the deal instead of abandoning it altogether. It soon became clear, however, that Hook was not acting at the behest of the White House.
In March 2018, Trump fired Tillerson, with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster leaving his post that same month. Both were replaced by hawks who preferred a hardline stance on Iran. Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo -- who had railed against the nuclear deal as a congressman and, later, as CIA director, had established close ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pompeo is a deeply religious man, with some officials seeing him as a kind of Christian Ayatollah. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in March 2019, the secretary of state said he considered it possible that God had sent Trump to protect Israel from the Iranian threat. "I am confident that the Lord is at work here," he said.
Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, meanwhile, is an unabashed hardliner and has been consistently open about his belief that the U.S. should overthrow the regime in Tehran, with violence if necessary. When negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal were approaching their conclusion in spring 2015, Bolton published an editorial in the New York Times with the headline: "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran."
French President Emmanuel Macron made a final, last-ditch effort to save the deal during an April 2018 visit to Washington. He told the U.S. president that talks with the special Iran representative, Brian Hook, had been promising. "Who is Brian Hook," Trump responded, according to the New York Times.
Just a short time later, Pompeo held a keynote address on Iran at the invitation of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation in which he portrayed Tehran as a kleptocracy. In his speech, he mentioned a name that many in his audience had likely never heard before: "Qassem Soleimani has been playing with house money that has become blood money," he said.
Pompeo didn't just demand an end to the Iranian nuclear program, he insisted that Iran had to abandon its regional power aspirations and cease the proliferation of ballistic missiles. In August, Trump reimposed all those sanctions against Iran that had been dropped as part of the nuclear treaty.
A few months later, the president announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis, a man who had been consistently eager to avoid escalation with Iran. He had apparently refused the White House request to prepare options for attacking Iran.
Trump was now being advised by men prepared to topple Tehran’s regime by force. In early May, Bolton announced plans to send the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, to the Persian Gulf. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government imposed further sanctions against Tehran, which were extended to affect the trade in steel, copper and aluminum. The country’s economic performance took a further, painful hit.
The first military confrontations between the U.S. and Iran took place in June of 2019, when the Iranian air force shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Retaliation seemed unavoidable and Trump was ultimately presented with a plan of attack in which up to 150 people could be killed. On Twitter, Trump wrote that although the weapons of the U.S. military were "locked and loaded," the death of 150 people would have been an excessive reaction to the downing of an unmanned drone.
This marked the first setback for the hawks close to Pompeo. Although Trump had pushed all moderate forces out of his government, he still didn't want to be pushed into a war with Iran.
But the unavoidable contradictions of his Iran policy caught up with him when the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was attacked. On one hand, he had insisted during his election campaign that he would put a stop to the endless wars in the Middle East. On the other, he didn’t want to be seen as a wimp. After all, Trump had repeatedly mocked Obama for drawing a red line during the Syrian civil war but ultimately deciding not to intervene when the regime in Damascus used chemical weapons against civilians.
The Soleimani case clearly shows how erratic the White House's decision making has become. The National Security Council has served to inform the president about the world’s trouble spots for decades, but no president has burned through so many staff members in such a short amount of time. In three years, he has gone through three national security advisers alone. A man named Robert O’Brien has held the position since John Bolton’s departure last September, and O'Brien's most important qualification is that he does not contradict Trump.
"I do not believe that President Trump is generally well briefed on the second- and third-term consequences" of his decisions, says Douglas A. Silliman, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq until 2019. " And he has not always paid attention to detailed briefing of what might happen."
Silliman misses the days when the U.S. had a strategy on Iran. "The problem that this administration has had is that they have not been able to consistently articulate the policy changes that they have sought from Iran," he says.
Does it want an end to the nuclear program? Or for Iran to abandon its hegemonic goals? Or is it ultimately about toppling the regime? By ordering Soleimani’s death, Trump had hoped to get Iran off his docket once and for all, but he only succeeded in making it bigger. The conflict with Tehran will follow him for the entirety of his presidency.
A Time for Revenge
When Donald Trump appeared before the press in Washington on Wednesday, his desire to project normalcy was palpable. He had tweeted, "All is good" just a moment earlier. He said that Iran was aiming for de-escalation, almost sounding as though nothing of importance had happened at all, as if his military hadn’t just killed one of the most important and popular representatives of a foreign nation on his orders, leading the Middle East to the brink of yet another war.
Trump still believes he can make a "deal" with Tehran, though he is largely alone in this view. It is much more likely that the confrontation will continue, even if the missile attack on the two bases used by the U.S. marked the official end of the retaliation campaign, at least according to Iranian leadership.
"It's not over," says U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk, who, until 2018, held the unwieldy title of special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter Islamic State. He argues that Iran will now return to its strategy of asymmetrical warfare, in which Tehran uses Shiite proxies do its dirty work.
Hassan Nasrallah -- head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which has close ties to Iran -- has already announced that he will ensure that all U.S. troops withdraw from the region. He said that attacks on bases, warships and soldiers, including using suicide attackers, were being prioritized, indirectly taking a step closer to the ultimate goal of destroying Israel, he said.
Iran’s shadow warriors, supported so deeply by Qassim Soleimani, are powerful: They have the capability to attack U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Syria, while Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are also allied with Tehran, could intensify their attacks on Saudi Arabia.
This past September might have provided a hint as to what the Iranian regime is capable of, when the country seemingly carried out a technologically sophisticated attack using cruise missiles and armed drones on Saudi oil facilities, temporarily halving the country’s oil production. Iran denied responsibility for the attack, but the U.S., the UK, France and Germany unanimously concluded that Tehran had been behind it.
German authorities believe the threat level has ticked upwards. "There is reason to fear that the era of political saber rattling in the region will be followed by Iranian (military) retaliatory attacks as well as attacks by their two most important allies (Hezbollah and Syria)," the initial prediction by the German Federal Criminal Police claimed. The most obvious targets, it argued, were U.S. and Israeli military and diplomatic facilities.
Iran also has numerous cyber-soldiers and an arsenal that would be useful in a cyberwar. The country’s decision to rapidly expand these capabilities might have been motivated by a single attack by the West. About 10 years ago, the Iranians discovered why many parts of their uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz had malfunctioned: A piece of malware called Stuxnet, supposedly developed by American and Israeli intelligence services to destroy the facility’s centrifuges and sabotage the nuclear program.
Iran reacted by building up its own cyber-troops. Iran’s hackers have attacked the control system of a dam near New York and tried to take down the servers of large American banks and the New York Stock Exchange with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. When the American casino magnate Sharon Adelson recommended attacking Iran with nuclear weapons, his billion-dollar company likewise came into the Iranian crosshairs. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blamed Iran and said it meant the U.S. "saw, for the first time, destructive cyber attacks carried out on U.S. soil by nation-state entities."
According to an analysis by the ETH Zurich’s Center for Security Studies, Iran has continue to develop its capabilities since and is active on many fields of cyber warfare, from cyber espionage to targeted disinformation campaigns to attempts to sabotage industrial processes. The Quds brigade also has its own cyber arm.
The ETH analysts listed an array of groups who are doing paid contact work for the regime on an ongoing basis. It says that over 50 organized cyber-warfare groups of this type have now been identified.
This past weekend, Iranian hackers offered a foretaste of possible acts of cyber-retaliation when it hijacked the website of a U.S. government’s Federal Depository Library Program. It displayed an animation in which a man in an Iranian uniform punched a bloody Trump in the face above the warning that it constituted "only a small part of Iran's cyber ability."
The boy is about five, maybe six years old. Standing in a cluster of people, he yells: "I am Qassem!" The adults around him cheer. Then he stretches his little fist in the air, his face distorted by exertion, and yells one, two, three more times: "I am Qassem! I am Qassem Soleimani!"
A woman, her face hidden behind a black chador in a sign of mourning, tearfully yells: "The Americans will pay for this! I have two sons. I am willing to sacrifice them to avenge the blood of the martyr!" The men yell: "We are Qassem Soleimani. We are all his soldiers!" And over and over again, they scream: "Death to America!"
These images were all over Iranian state television this week, on all channels, along with a superimposed black banderole. They showed the endlessly long funeral processions, the black sea of people, the fists, the tears, the chanting fury.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) at Qassem Soleimani's funeral ceremony.Foto: Anadolu Agency/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Scenes from Soleimani’s life were interspersed throughout the coverage: Soleimani visiting troops, shaking hands, patting backs, praying. Soleimani bowing before Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. And all this was underlaid with florid prose, poems honoring the dead and Middle Eastern pop: "O’ Qassem, our Qassem, beloved martyr, you live, and you will always live."
The killing of the commander of the Quds Force has become a significant national event for the Iranians. Many older people find it reminiscent of the funeral ceremonies marking the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. "But this is much bigger," says one observer. "This has never taken place in the history of the Islamic Republic."
The Iranian state apparatus is well-versed when it comes to propaganda, and the annual celebrations marking the anniversary of the revolution are massive, elaborately staged events. And that propaganda machine began working right after Soleimani’s death. Iran’s cities were quickly plastered with posters and banners: Soleimani with Khamenei, Soleimani in the sky. In the TV coverage on Sunday alone, the first day of the three-day state mourning period, one observer in Tehran counted 32 different songs that were written and played to honor the dead general.
But the public mourning and anger of hundreds of thousands in cities around the country is far more than just a regime-staged event. "There was propaganda, but the people didn’t come because of that," says Arash Mussavi, a businessman in Tehran, who declined to provide his real name. He says Soleimani was extremely popular, including among friends of his who are critical of the regime.
Soleimani’s killing has, at least for a moment, united a divided and jittery country. Trump has managed something that the Iranian leadership never has. The opposition has joined in on the mourning and the anger many Iranians feel about the grim economic situation – anger that, just a few weeks ago, was being directed at their own regime -- has now been redirected at the United States.
Many Iranians see the general’s killing as an attack on them and their country. The mourning processions included not just women wearing black chadors, but also women wearing pushed-back veils and lots of makeup. Author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who otherwise isn't particularly supportive of the Iranian leadership, offered his public condolences, as did, reportedly, opposition politician Mehdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrest for almost 10 years, ever since the protests of the Green Movement.
Criticism of the leaders and their approach has become muted, and it will likely stay that way for a while. The moderates who previously criticized Iran’s role in the region and have advocated for a careful rapprochement with the U.S., have gone silent for now. Both large groups on the political spectrum, the reformers and the hardliners, are taking up Soleimani as one of their own. Even Ardeshir Zahedi, an elderly former foreign minister from the Shah period, praised the "Son of Iran" in an interview as a "patriotic and honorable soldier."
The sense of national solidarity is likely to help those in power mobilize voters in the general election scheduled for Feb. 21. That's important since high voter turnout is considered a measure of popular support and, as such, of the legitimacy of the system.
The country's leaders also profit from the power of the Shiite tradition of mourning in Iran. The martyrdom of a popular and respected leader is the central theme of Shiite culture. Every year during Muharram, the month of mourning, thousands of faithful parade through the streets in memory of Imam Hussein, the Shiite leader killed in 680 near Karbala. It's a culture in which suffering and endurance are the driving forces. And one in which the willingness to make sacrifices and legitimacy play a more important role than victory. The Shiites have always viewed themselves as an oppressed minority in Islam who stand up to a superior power. It's this self-image that has shaped their hostility toward the U.S. for decades.
Within this tradition, tears aren't seen as a sign of weakness. When Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei burst into tears in front of Soleimani's coffin, he became part of a long tradition of Iranian statesmen: The legendary Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and revolutionary leader Khomeini often wept in public, and the Shah shed tears when he had to leave the country after his fall. Pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami wept when he suffered a political defeat.
Qassem Soleimani had already been popular during his lifetime, but not immeasurably so. Now that he has died, though, he has become no less than a popular hero. The attitude of Iranian society toward the Revolutionary Guards has long been contradictory. On the one hand, they are reviled as a symbol of violence and oppression, but at the same time, they are respected because they defended the country in the war against Iraq.
A demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3 following Soleimani's killing: Soleimani had been popular in his life, but with his death, he has become a popular hero.Foto: Ebrahim Noroozi/ picture alliance/dpa
Soleimani's popularity was based primarily on his reputation as a defender of the country -- from the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s to the fight against Islamic State. Many Iranians view his cooperation, recruitment and arming of Shiite militias in the region not as an attempt to achieve hegemony, but as an insurance policy against a possible attack. As a country, Iran feels threatened by the presence of more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers in the region, and memories of the U.S.-backed Iraqi war of aggression against Iran are deeply rooted.
Soleimani also proved to be an exception among the country's leaders in that people didn't view him as corrupt. The only reason rumors that he was more popular than the revolutionary leader didn't seem to harm him was that he always showed demonstrative obedience and reverence. Although his name had circulated as a possible successor to President Hassan Rohani, he never showed any political ambitions.
Soleimani's successor Esmail Ghaani enjoys no comparable reputation -- neither among the populace nor within Iran's inner circle of power. As such, he will have to be far more dependent on the political leadership and will have to act less self-confidently and independently than his predecessor.
Trump's move was a gift to the Iranian leadership not only at home, but also abroad. Because many Shiites in the region view Soleimani's killing as a declaration of war, it could unleash forces against the U.S. beyond Iran. If the Iranian regime succeeded in driving US troops out of the region, that would be Soleimani's true legacy.
But Iran also has no interest in a large-scale military conflict – especially one that Tehran would have no hope of winning. Indeed, Iran's first counterstrike seemed measured and commensurate, but it may not be the only one. It's quite conceivable that Iran is pursuing a double strategy and that it will have its proxies in the region carry out additional attacks, which would allow Tehran to publicly distance itself from the aggression just as it has done in the past.
So far, Iran's response to the killing has been measured, but it's possible the country will conduct further attacks through proxies.Foto: NurPhoto/ NurPhoto via Getty Images
Soleimani's death may have covered up the regime's difficulties for the time being, but they haven't been solved. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions continue to hobble the Iranian economy. Although the protests against Iran's leaders have been quashed, the root causes that triggered them in the first place haven't disappeared. Large parts of the middle class are impoverished, inflation and unemployment are high and the country's youth feel they have few prospects.
On Wednesday evening in Tehran, a sense of relief over Trump's declaration of restraint seemed to prevail. Businessman Arash Mussavi says the tension was palpable all day following the Iranian attack on bases in Iraq. "People were really afraid of war."
A Superpower's Farewell
Soleimani was successful once before in driving American troops out of Baghdad. When the different factions in Iraq were unable to agree on a head of government after the 2010 election, Qassem Soleimani managed to secure a majority for one candidate in tough rounds of negotiations: Nouri al-Maliki, a faith-driven Shiite apparatchik.
It marked the failure of U.S. attempts to form a government. At the time, Washington had hoped to withdraw some of the approximately 130,000 soldiers the U.S. still had stationed in Iraq and maintain a presence with a smaller force. But Soleimani said no and Maliki became prime minister, with Washington's blessing. He then successfully pushed for the complete withdrawal of the Americans, who left in 2011.
But they returned in 2014 at the request of Maliki's successor to save Iraq from the further advance of the Islamic State. Since then, Soleimani had been doing everything in his power to end the presence of the 6,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq. The idea had been to wear them down through constant attacks and drive them to military counterstrikes -- provocations that ultimately contributed to Soleimani's slaying.
The U.S. government considered it unnecessary to inform Baghdad in advance about the planned drone attack on Soleimani. And rather than appeasing the Iraqis after carrying out the attack within their borders, Trump threatened to impose "sanctions like they've never seen before ever" if Iraq called for the American forces to leave.
But the Iraqis did just that. On Jan. 5, a majority in parliament in Baghdad passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to expel American troops from the country. Many Kurds and Sunni members of parliament boycotted the session and it is also entirely unclear what powers Prime Minister Abd Al-Mahdi still has. He announced his resignation after months of protests and is now acting merely as a caretaker head of government until a suitable replacement can be found. Nevertheless, a sense of resignation already appears to be prevailing in Washington. Shortly after the resolution, a letter found its way onto social media on Monday from William Seely, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq. In it, he wrote, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."
Responding to the development, U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper declared he had no idea what was meant with the letter. Finally, Joint Chiefs of Staff head Milley had no choice but to meekly concede that the letter was real and had been published by mistake.
Iran's leaders are now likely to make every effort to get Baghdad to push through the Americans' withdrawal.
Tehran is currently in the process of consolidating its power in Iraq. At the same time, other forces could also benefit from the Americans' plight -- particularly IS, which could be poised for a comeback. "We now have a situation in the Middle East in which the Kurds are fighting against Turkey, the U.S. is withdrawing and Iran is seeking revenge," says the high-ranking representative of a German security agency. "These are wonderful conditions for IS."
The American president believes that killing Soleimani during the campaign will bolster his prospects for re-election, but the move could also backfire.
The Democrats are currently looking back in horror to 2003, when George W. Bush went to war under the false pretense that the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. A number of Democrats backed the war at the time, including a senator from Delaware named Joe Biden, who now leads the pack of Democratic presidential candidates.
To this day, Biden still finds himself having to justify his vote in Congress approving the Iraq war. That's part of why Democrats are now so keen to find out the real reason behind Trump's order to kill Soleimani. So far, though, no one has succeeded in extracting more from Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo than the thin statement that the general had planned an attack on U.S. targets. Even a briefing held behind closed doors on Wednesday by Pompeo, Defense Secretary Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff head Milley and CIA director Gina Haspel did little to satisfy Democrats. Even Republican Senator Rand Paul complained about the dearth of concrete information provided.
One thing is certain: With the drone attack on the Iranian general, Trump has pushed foreign policy onto the agenda of the 2020 presidential campaign. Still, it's doubtful that it will help Trump much. Poll after poll shows that Americans are tired of war, with U.S. troops having been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years, and the war in Iraq having dragged on for 16 years. Around 7,000 American soldiers have been killed in both countries, and it won't help Trump any if he now gets caught up in a bloody conflict with Iran.
Americans are suffering from war fatigue, but additional troops are still being dispatched to the Middle East from bases like the one at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.Foto: Andrew Craft/ Getty Images
At the same time, if Soleimani's killing doesn't lead to a spiral of violence, the president could also chalk it up as a success. Most American voters consider the question of whether Suleiman's murder is legal under international law to be a purely academic one. Even the liberal New York Times wrote: "The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise."
Similar arguments could be heard from centrist Democrats led by Biden, who is accusing the president of leading the U.S. into an uncontrollable conflict with Iran. In contrast to his leftist rivals, Biden didn't criticize the drone attack on Soleimani, per se. For their part, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke of murder and made clear they consider Trump to be a war criminal to score points with their left-wing base.
A New Level of Unpredictability
Soleimani was a security risk for Israel. He had been inching closer and closer to the predominantly Jewish state with his militias in Lebanon and Syria. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak told DER SPIEGEL that Soleimani's name had been well known in security circles for the past 25 years. We've had him on our radar for generations, he says.
But the country never dared to go so far as to kill Soleimani, "even though he was a headache for all of us," as one former intelligence service worker admitted. The price seemed too high. Israel didn't want an open war with Iran.
Indeed, even as Israel's leaders may have secretly rejoiced over Soleimani's death, they have been careful to distance themselves publicly from Trump's decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the drone attack as a "U.S. event," according to press reports, adding that Israel should "stay out" of anything that might follow. The Israeli army expressed similar sentiment, saying that officials are watching the conflict "from the sidelines."
It is a rather striking departure from past Netanyahu demands that the U.S. to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. For the time being, at least, the government in Jerusalem has decided it would prefer to continue with clandestine attacks on Iran. This is in part attributable to the fact that people are less certain of American support now than they were in the past.
Many of Trump's decisions may have been good for Israel, says former Prime Minister Barak. Trump's past decisions have included, among other things, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and officially recognizing the Golan Heights, annexed from Syria, as Israeli territory. But Trump is unpredictable, he says, and Israel can't be certain that America will stand at its side in all circumstances. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israeli military intelligence, says that at least the Iranians act rationally, adding that he can't necessarily say the same about Trump.
The situation is similar in Saudi Arabia. The silence on the part of the country's leaders has been conspicuous. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman relied on support from the U.S. for years in the conflict with Iran. But he realized how risky this strategy was when Trump did nothing for his allies in Riyadh after the attack on oil facilities in the fall.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in JuneFoto: POOL New/ REUTERS
Prince Mohammed has been pursuing de-escalation ever since. He sent a delegation to Washington the Monday after Soleimani's murder. But unlike previous visits, his emissaries weren't there to convince the Americans of the need for confrontation with Iran. This time, they argued for the opposite.
War or the Bomb?
Jens Stoltenberg has achieved a certain mastery in dealing with the U.S. president. The NATO secretary general has found ways of validating Donald Trump while at the same time deflating him in a way few others have.
That could be seen on Wednesday. In a speech, Trump called on the Western alliance to become "much more involved in the Middle East process." Later, NATO headquarters confirmed that Stoltenberg and Trump had phoned, saying that both sides had agreed that NATO could "contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism."
It may have sounded like an agreement, but there wasn't really anything to it. Stoltenberg is well aware that the other NATO members have zero appetite for stronger engagement in the Middle East. "It is inconceivable that NATO would engage militarily in the Arab world," says Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, who is the EU's longest-serving foreign minister. "The European member states would never participate in that."
But no one wants to engage in public conflict with the U.S. Instead, the Europeans are keeping their heads down. In official statements, they're calling for "de-escalation," particularly with the Iranians. Behind closed doors, however, it's Trump they are cursing.
Much is at stake for Europe. If the Mideast sinks into chaos, Europe could be threatened with rising oil prices and a new refugee crisis. Also, the U.S. may not be within range of Iran's missiles, but the neighboring continent of Europe is. And the Europeans haven't succeeded in decoupling themselves from Washington on the Iran issue.
There is no other point where that is more evident than in the conflict over the nuclear agreement. On Wednesday, Trump demanded that Germany, France and Britain finally break away from the "remnants" of the "very defective" deal, from which Washington unilaterally withdrew in May 2018. The Europeans have been trying to rescue something since then that is no longer salvageable.
Over the weekend, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complained to chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell about the lack of economic benefits reaped by the agreement. And he's right. Brussels still hasn't found a way of circumventing the American sanctions. And the EU isn't in a position to assist companies that want to continue doing business with Iran. For example, major European banks refuse to conduct transactions with Tehran, because even the European Investment Bank, a public institution, is dependent on the American capital market for refinancing. The U.S. dollar is still so dominant that Washington is easily able to enforce its sanctions.
But diplomats in Berlin and Paris also blame the government in Tehran for not taking the olive branch the Europeans extended to officials there. In a surprise move, French President Macron held a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister last August on the margins of the G-7 meeting in Biarritz. Trump had even been willing to meet with President Rohani. But Rohani refused, despite the fact that the Europeans had held out the prospect of a billion-euro loan for the country.
Instead, the nuclear agreement is dying a slow but certain death. After Tehran announced on Sunday it would increase the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, thus disregarding another condition of the nuclear agreement, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain agreed they would invoke the agreement's joint arbitration commission if necessary. If no amicable solution were to be found, European sanctions would also go back into force. At that point, the agreement would end for good, and the only way Iran could likely be stopped from building a nuclear bomb would be through the use of military force.
At some point, the shadow war would then turn into an open one.