Before Olin and a significant portion of the world shut down due to this pandemic, this is what I was going to preface this article with:
International relations and foreign policy aren’t things we talk about often at Olin. The average American doesn’t live with the consequences of US foreign policy, however the majority of the world’s population does. The Vietnamese, the Chilean, the Turkish and the Greek felt them during the Cold War, just as the Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis do today. I think it’s important to learn about international relations, and their direct ramifications on people’s lives. This is why I chose to do an AHS Capstone in communicating the recent developments in the Middle East related to international relations to the Olin community. With this project, I hope to start a conversation about international relations, different countries’ foreign policies and their impact on the lives of regular people, especially for those that live in the Middle East.
I wrote the following piece after I got messages from friends over Winter Break, asking if I knew anything about the “Iran situation” – referring to the Soleimani assassination. I didn’t at the time, therefore I spent the better part of January and February researching and writing about it. The following is what I have to say about the “Iran situation”.
On the Soleimani Assassination
On January 3, a US drone strike on the Baghdad International Airport killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’ elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Iranian troops in Iraq (Cohen). US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the attack was deterrent in nature, citing an intelligence report on Soleimani’s intentions of an attack on four US embassies in the region, and an overall threat of Iranian aggression on American interests and allies in the region (Stracqualursi). I argue that the U.S. administration’s decision to kill Soleimani was ineffective in addressing the Iranian threat and was primarily a product of the blind pursuit of “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.
“Maximum pressure” is the brainchild of the famous Iran-hawk and former National Security Adviser under Trump, John Bolton, who argued that the only way to prevent Iran from expanding their sphere of influence in the region and from producing nuclear weapons is to pressure them through financial, political and military means. The goal of the policy is to force Iran to the negotiating table with the US on the US’ terms, on topics ranging from nuclear enrichment, Iran’s involvement in the many conflicts in the Middle East, to their role in the Palestine-Israel conflict. As part of this policy, the US previously pulled out from the “Iran nuclear deal” – officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA – citing its weakness in supporting American interests. The U.S. also re-imposed sanctions amounting up to $100 billion, which had been previously lifted following Iran’s compliance with JCPOA (Bakeer).
Qasem Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force – which is IRGC’s military branch that operates outside of Iran to protect the regime’s interests abroad through intelligence and unconventional military operations. Throughout his tenure, he built a strong network of proxy militia groups across the Middle East – which allowed him to coordinate Iran’s military involvement in the region, thereby expanding Iran’s sphere of influence against the Saudi regime. After an Iranian rocket attack on an Iraqi military base had killed an American contractor and a group of Hezbollah (Iran-backed) supporters had stormed the US embassy in Baghdad in late December, 2019, the tensions between the US and Iran had risen significantly (Makki).
In the presence of high tensions and an alleged threat to US personnel in the region, killing Soleimani not only promoted Iran and their allies in the region to retaliate against US troops and personnel, it was ineffective in addressing the real threat that Soleimani posed to American interests: the network of proxies he had established. While one could argue that these networks rely on personal relationships between Soleimani and his proxies, removing the head of an organization is seldom effective in disrupting their operations. In fact, following the attack, Iran promptly hit US bases in the region and went as far as leaving their air space open – treating the civilian traffic as a shield from further US retaliation – and downed a Ukrainian airliner, showing that the hit only aggravated the regime in threatening American personnel and interests in the region (Lampert).
Since then, the Iranian aggression towards the US seems so unaffected by the drone strike that some government officials reportedly admit that “the killing of General Suleimani has not — as some had hoped — led Iran and its proxies to think twice about fomenting violence inside Iraq and elsewhere (Mazzetti)”, further confirming the futility of the assassination in preventing further Iranian attacks. One could argue that the attack was a successful preemptive attack based on the intelligence report Pompeo and many other senior White House officials cited. After all, a threat to US embassies in the region and a central figure to Iran’s operations in the region was killed; however the process to the assassination decision left many doubtful of the conclusiveness of the report and the cited imminent threat. Prior to the assassination, the administration circumvented a necessary meeting with the Gang of Eight – a group of high-ranking members of the Congress are informed on classified intelligence matters – before authorizing the strike, preventing any input from crucial leaders of the government (Stracqualursi). Given the skepticism voiced by several members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the lack of evidence for Pompeo’s claims (Chiacu), it isn’t difficult to distinguish this attack as a blind pursuit of their “maximum pressure” policy, rather than a preemptive strike to alleviate a threat on US personnel and an effort to prevent further military confrontation with Iran.
Soleimani was a dangerous individual. He built a loyal network of proxies and militia groups across the Middle East, and posed significant risk to US interests, such as reinforcing Iran’s regional hegemony and threatening the US and its allies through his proxies. He was paramount for Iran’s numerous military involvements and humanitarian atrocities in the region, including the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the ensuing refugee crisis. The US needs to take action against Iran’s growing destructive influence in the region, but this type of dogmatic implementation of the “maximum pressure” policy is reckless and unlikely to be successful.