Commentary: Soleimani’s killing may ignite chain of escalation

Iran likely does not want an all-out war, but a small error could engulf the entire Middle East.

By Ishaan Tharoor / The Washington Post

Over the weekend, thousands of mourners in cities in Iraq and Iran participated in funeral processions for Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a prominent Iranian commander. He was a Washington boogeyman, implicated in years of chaos and bloodshed. But the theocratic regime and its allies cast his death — the result of a U.S. drone strike on a convoy carrying him and a number of other prominent pro-Iranian militia leaders out of Baghdad’s international airport early Friday — as a martyrdom, the heroic sacrifice of an icon of “resistance” whose influence and supposed charisma helped stitch together a network of pro-Tehran proxy groups throughout the Middle East.

Iran’s leadership vowed “severe revenge,” though many analysts suspect the regime will bide its time before mustering a violent reprisal. Instead, it basked in a surge of nationalist sentiment and anger at home. Less than two months ago, security forces are said to have killed hundreds of Iranian protesters to quell an uprising spurred by the regime’s dysfunctional management of the country’s crippled economy. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Iranian cities to mourn a fallen hero and decry the “imperialist” power that killed him.

President Trump helped stoke the flames even further with a tweet threatening the destruction of Iranian cultural sites — what most international legal scholars would tell you is a war crime — should the regime seek vengeance for the death of Soleimani.

“At a time when his unprecedented sanctions had stirred unrest inside Iran, the political elite has just been handed a rallying cry,” wrote Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at Soas University in London. “The strike on Suleimani, whose status approached that of national icon, will harden popular sentiment against the U.S. while simultaneously shoring up the regime.”

On Sunday, Iran made its fifth announcement about winding down its obligations to the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranian authorities said that they would no longer abide by restrictions on uranium enrichment, but would return to their previous commitments should the United States withdraw the sanctions whose imposition were also a violation of the pact. The announcement had been expected before Soleimani’s assassination but took on a darker cast as tensions mounted.

In Iraq, too, the backlash was swift. The country’s parliament voted on Sunday to ask for the removal of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil. The resolution was nonbinding and “did not immediately imperil the U.S. presence in Iraq,” wrote The Post’s Erin Cunningham, “but it highlights the head winds the Trump administration faces after the strike, which was seen in Iraq as a violation of sovereignty and as a dangerous escalation by governments across the Middle East.”

For President Trump and some of the Washington foreign policy establishment, though, it still may be worth it. In Trump’s words, Soleimani was “the number one terrorist in the world,” the mastermind behind a generation of asymmetric warfare in the region, as well as various plots against America. In briefings with reporters, U.S. officials justified the targeted killing of Soleimani as an act of “deterrence” based on intelligence that the senior leader was planning a number of “imminent” possible attacks on U.S. interests. But other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to my colleagues and other outlets, suggested that the evidence of Soleimani’s direct involvement was “razor thin” and that Trump had chosen the most extreme path of retaliation after pro-Iran militiamen ransacked sections of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq last week.

Soleimani was the head of the Quds Force, a wing of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that steers the regime’s proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. These factions have been locked in months of shadow conflict with the United States and its allies in the wake of Trump’s reimposition of sweeping sanctions on Iran after quitting the Obama-era nuclear deal.

On one hand, the Trump administration believes its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is working and that killing Soleimani adds to the regime’s internal strains. But Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region — a key reason cited by Trump for reneging on the nonproliferation pact — have only spiked in recent months, including alleged attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq, shipping in the Persian Gulf and a major Saudi oil facility.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the world a “safer place” after Soleimani’s death. But the path ahead remains deeply treacherous. “My sense is that we will see an escalation in Iraq,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, to my colleague Liz Sly. “But I don’t think the Iranians really want a war with the U.S. I don’t think they are interested in an all-out regional conflict. The problem is that all it takes is one small error and the whole region would be engulfed.”

Amid the crisis, the United States ordered American citizens to leave Iraq and suspended its military cooperation and training programs with Iraqi security forces. The latter action risks undermining the ongoing effort to defeat the extremist Islamic State. And the Trump administration has hardly rallied a united front to its cause, with Pompeo bemoaning how European allies — who are trying to keep afloat the gutted husk of the nuclear deal — were “not helpful” enough.

“For European capitals,” wrote Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “this means their worst predictions — they warned the Trump administration that withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal would trigger a chain of escalation with Iran — are becoming reality.”

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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