Why you should care
Because international affairs for 2020 are off to a rocky start.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
On Thursday, President Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani. The reaction has been nothing short of sharp condemnation by Iran and by the Middle East generally, apart from Israel and Saudi Arabia. American politicians all note Soleimani’s evil deeds but are divided over the wisdom of killing him and over the longer-range consequences. We caught up with OZY senior contributor and former CIA Deputy Director and Acting Director John McLaughlin for some perspective on what this means and where it might head.
Why is Soleimani important?
Qassem Soleimani was a major general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and head of its elite paramilitary and clandestine operations wing, the Quds Force. He had also gained control of many Shiite militias, especially in Iraq and Syria, and generally led Iran’s security policy in the Middle East. As my friend and Middle East specialist Jon Alterman says, Soleimani was a “soldier, spy and diplomat all rolled into one.”
In these roles, he oversaw attacks by the Guard and militias throughout the Middle East, frequently on American forces, especially during the Iraq War. More recently, he also led the militias in attacks on the Sunni-oriented Islamic State and deserves some credit for the dismantling of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq, which contributed to his popularity and respect there and at home in Iran.
While the United States rightly regarded Soleimani as a threat, in Iran he was seen as a hero and was by most measures the second most important and powerful official after Supreme Leader Khomeini. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that within Iran’s context he was seen the way Americans saw generals such as MacArthur or Eisenhower. So the attack on Soleimani will be viewed by Iranians as an attack on a government official roughly comparable to Cabinet rank in Washington.
What led to his killing?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the immediate motive was intelligence showing Soleimani was preparing attacks on American targets. U.S. credibility abroad is low under the Trump administration, so it will be under heavy pressure to reveal that intelligence in the near future.
Beyond this immediate cause, antagonism has built for years between Iran and the U.S., with Soleimani and his troops often at the center of it. This accelerated in the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program and his re-imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. The intended effect, Trump says, was to bring Iran to the bargaining table for a toughening of the nuclear agreement. Predictably, in my view, this did not work out, and the result instead has been retaliation by Iran for the renewed sanctions — and escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran. This culminated in the past two weeks with U.S. airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq that Washington blames for attacks on American facilities and the death of a U.S. contractor — with the American action provoking Iraqi attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
This is a classic escalatory cycle that at this point does not have a clear end in sight.
How will Iran react?
Iran will retaliate. The only questions are when and how. It will want to avoid an all-out war that could pit it against superior U.S. conventional power. More likely, it will choose asymmetric tactics that play to its advantages: intimate knowledge of the region, intelligence ties and its network of supporters and proxies there. It will almost certainly continue to stir unrest in Iraq and attacks on Americans with the aim of driving the U.S. out (and in this it has some sympathy from the Iraqi government). Hit-and-run attacks on American forces, embassies and kidnapping operations are all likely in Tehran’s playbook. Among its proxies, the one to watch most closely is Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has studied American targets for decades and which, before al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, most specialists regarded as terrorism’s “A team.” Moreover, arrests of Hezbollah operatives in New York and Michigan in 2017 revealed surveillance of U.S.-based targets and a desire by the group to build an attack capability here. The bottom line is that this is likely to get ugly and will require heightened vigilance by all Americans in the days ahead.
How are other countries viewing this?
So far, most allies, such as France, Germany and the U.K., are avoiding endorsing or condemning either side but are urging de-escalation. Russia and China are calling the U.S. action reckless and irresponsible. The administration will be getting payback for pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, which displeased its partners and the Russians and Chinese, and for neglect of alliance ties. So don’t expect a bandwagon of international support if and when the U.S. makes its case for the attack.
What are the broader consequences of the event?
In all likelihood, the Iran nuclear agreement is now dead. Iran had been inching away from compliance — more enrichment of uranium, for example — but keeping open the option of returning to compliance. If it now feels no restraint, we could within months see Iran once again on the verge of nuclear weapons — which would encourage others in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular, to consider that path. A more aggressive Iran could, in turn, lead to more clashes with Israel and Saudi Arabia. So the strike and its aftermath will work against Trump’s desire to pull back from the Middle East. Here at home, it will further sour the administration’s relations with many in Congress, which apparently was not consulted, even at the restricted “Gang of Eight” level. Overall, the consequences are likely to be far-reaching and profound and contain surprises beyond our ability to anticipate in this early stage.