Donald Trump wants to be treated as a uniquely brave and patriotic president because of his decision to order a deadly U.S. strike against Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday.
Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago!” Trump wrote on Twitter. Had that happened, “a lot of lives would have been saved,” he later said during a press conference at his resort in Florida.
The same day, his reelection campaign released a video focused on the Trump administration’s killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October — not explicitly referencing Soleimani or Iran, but sending a clear signal with its timing and its title: “A Message to Bloodthirsty Savages Around the World.”
But American presidents and close American allies have repeatedly had the chance to assassinate Soleimani before. They have chosen not to. With Iran promising revenge and the U.S. escalating further in the form of big troop deployments, what Trump may ultimately be remembered for is initiating a costly and bloody crisis.
“The reason this has not been done in the past is because of the profoundly escalatory nature of this action,” Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official now with the Center for a New American Security, told HuffPost via email. “U.S. assets and personnel across the region will now be exposed to potential Iranian retaliation. And more so, we are very hesitant to assassinate high-ranking officials of other governments for fear they will retaliate by targeting our officials.”
Soleimani ran an arm of the Iranian military responsible for operations beyond Iran’s borders, known as the Quds Force, for 21 years. That position put him in frequent conflict with the U.S. and its partners as he funneled support to his friends across the neighborhood: in Lebanon and Palestine, to combat Israel; in Iraq, to ensure Iranian influence there after the U.S. invasion of 2003, with methods that included vicious attacks on Americans; and most recently in Syria, to shore up dictator Bashar Assad. His reach extended to Yemen and to Pakistan, to trips to Moscow and plots in Europe. And in certain circumstances, Soleimani was even useful to the U.S., most notably by helping lead Iraqi forces that fought ISIS with American aerial assistance.
At various points throughout his travels, Soleimani was vulnerable.
In January 2007, then-Joint Special Operations Command chief Stanley McChrystal watched a convoy that he knew contained the Iranian commander cross from Iran — whose airspace the U.S. wouldn’t be welcome in — into Iraq, where McChrystal’s forces were able to operate. “There was good reason to strike,” the retired general recently wrote for Foreign Policy magazine, citing Soleimani’s responsibility for the deaths of American soldiers. “To avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow,” he decided not to.
“The decision not to act is often the hardest one to make ― and it isn’t always right,” the retired general wrote at the beginning of his piece. He didn’t, however, say it would have been right to kill Soleimani.
A little over a year later, in 2008, Israeli operatives working with the U.S. to track a Soleimani associate informed the highest rungs of their government they had spotted the Iranian ― and were prepared to strike him. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vetoed the idea, New York Times reporter Ronen Bergman later revealed. He had promised the U.S. any operation would only hit Soleimani’s contact, the Lebanese militant Imad Mugniyah. The risk of taking down Soleimani was clear to decision-makers in both Washington and Jerusalem.
The United Kingdom, America’s closest ally, made a similar call in the same era. British special forces were preparing to assassinate Soleimani, but the country’s foreign minister, David Miliband, called off the operation to preserve the option of diplomacy with Iran, The Telegraph reported in an obituary for the Iranian commander. (A representative for Miliband did not respond to a request for comment.)
And as recently as 2015, once the U.S. became seriously engaged in the fight against ISIS and Soleimani began publicly appearing on battlefields in Iraq and Syria, American officials publicly discussed the option of killing him.
“If we were conducting air operations, would somebody like Qassem Soleimani be a target?” then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), now the governor of Florida, asked during a 2015 hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We don’t, at this time, intend to target him,” replied retired Gen. John Allen, the Obama administration’s counter-ISIS czar.
Asked why, he offered an explanation that resonates today.
“We’re in this to assist the Iraqi government in dealing with [ISIS],” Allen said. “That’s the reason that we’re there, not to go to war with Iran. I think it’s very important for us to keep that in mind. I’ll just leave it there.”
Again and again, well-informed Americans and U.S.-aligned governments assessed that the choice to assassinate Soleimani would cause a major and indisputably violent escalation that wouldn’t be worth the potential gains from removing him.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” wrote Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former Pentagon official, on Twitter after the news of the Friday attack. “The two administrations I worked for” — those of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — “both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means. The Trump administration has made a different calculation.”
Of course, things have changed since the Obama years. Trump killed the Obama administration’s historic diplomacy with Iran and scrapped the 2015 nuclear deal in favor of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders, in turn, became fixated on trying to challenge Trump to force him to ease policies like harsh new sanctions. Soleimani and other officials decided to do that through military means — attacking a drone, tankers, Saudi oil production and then, in recent months, facilities housing some of the thousands of Americans in Iraq, ultimately killing a U.S. contractor on Dec. 27.
Trump gave the Pentagon broad latitude to kill Soleimani amid the increase in Iranian aggression in Iraq over the last two months, a senior defense official told Politico. Military personnel had previously believed they were highly unlikely to ever have approval to target him even though they had discussed the option, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata told the outlet.
Officials raised the option to him again this week after the contractor’s death, American strikes and an Iran-linked march on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Trump approved it shortly before the fatal hit, The Washington Post reported.
“What changed is that Iran became too cavalier in how it believed it could kill Americans without repercussions,” Colin Clarke, an analyst at the Soufan Center, wrote in an email. He pointed to U.S. officials’ statements after the attack that they had intelligence showing Soleimani planning to pummel Americans posted in Syria and Lebanon.
But the administration hasn’t explained how the possible benefits justified the likely costs of Trump’s decision.
Even if Iran were on the brink of launching a major assault, as the U.S. has claimed without revealing evidence of such a plot, removing Soleimani does not remove its capacity to do that. Losing Soleimani, Clarke wrote, “is definitely a significant blow for Iran. He was clearly a highly capable general and one tasked with managing Iran’s national security strategy throughout the region. ... That said, Esmail Ghaani” ― Soleimani’s newly appointed replacement ― “will step in and pick up right where” his predecessor left off.
The best possible gain from Trump’s point of view would be if Tehran decided it could never escalate to the extent that the U.S. is willing to and offered to make concessions that go beyond what the Obama administration secured in the nuclear deal.
There’s little indication so far that things will go that way.
The costs, though, are already appearing just as experts predicted. The U.S. is in the process of losing what goodwill it won in Iraq through its role in the ISIS fight, with lawmakers in Baghdad preparing to vote to expel American forces, and American commanders deciding it’s become unsafe to continue training Iraqi counterparts to resist a resurgence of the militant group.
“Short-term gratification without any thought given to the fallout. What will be left of US influence in Iraq?” Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraqi politics at the London School of Economics, wrote on Twitter.
And the Islamic Republic is indicating that more than a decade of predictions were accurate: It will treat the incident as requiring a major response, one that experts believe could take a number of forms.
Soleimani’s successor “will be tasked with helping to form an adequate Iranian response to the U.S. attacks. I think Iran is likely to choose a significant retaliation, but it won’t necessarily be linear. It will be asymmetric and it could occur in waves, spread out over time and space, including in other countries beyond the Middle East,” Clarke said.
Iran’s ability to hurt Americans is ultimately limited, and it is fixated on preserving its regime by avoiding a draining war, per Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Yet the prospect of full-on, bloody chaos has more to do with Washington’s current position than that of Iran.
Trump’s foreign policy is consistent only in that it is erratic, prone to overreaction and rarely committed to securing long-term wins. It’s also left the U.S. more isolated from its key partners than it has been for years. The chances of a measured, strategic path forward seem low. So does the prospect that this will go down in history as an unmitigated win.