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Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword

The Targeted Assassination of Qassem Soleimani

by Mitchell Belfer

The original version in Italian is available at Formiche here.

As though governed by irony, the US conducted a target assassination operation against the commander of Iran’s elite Al Quds Force — General Qassem Soleimani — less than 24 hours after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Ali Khameini, boasted that there was nothing the US could do to stop Kata’ib Hezbollah’s — Tehran’s key proxy in Iraq — siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad. There is no mystery behind the killing; with haste, the US located and eliminated Soleimani signaling a major shift in US strategic thinking vis-a-vis Iran.


While most discourses related to Iran focus on the failed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, re: nuclear deal), Tehran’s paramilitary role in the region (and beyond) went largely unreported. That should not imply that it was minor. On the contrary. From the battlefields of Yemen, to the ethnic cleansing of swathes of northern Syria, a decade of sectarian warfare in Iraq and to his own spate of targeted assassinations across Europe, Iran bears responsibility and Soleimani was notorious. He acted with impunity—and for good reason.


For nearly a decade, Iran was on a seemingly unbeatable winning streak. It captured the Iraqi state via its Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), used its phantom war with Daesh — others (re: Kurds) did the heavy lifting while Tehran claimed victory — to snatch an assortment of strategic positions across Syria and its proxies in Yemen and Lebanon successfully brought those countries into Iran’s revolutionary orbit. Even the Arab Gulf states of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia had to face down Iranian-backed terrorist cells. Iran attacked Aramco, it targeted international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, it divided opinion in transatlantic relations. The view from Iran was that the US was checked.


This misunderstanding of US power, confusing its strategic patience with the lack of capabilities, would lead Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) under both General Mohammed Ali Jafari and then General Hossein Salami to unleash Soleimani as the point-man to consolidate Iran’s regional position. He did so swiftly and with great zeal. But he misunderstood both his own and his adversary’s power—and it cost him dearly.


In the early hours of 03 January 2020, a week into the Kata’ib Hezbollah siege of the US Embassy and hot on the orders to deploy deadly force against Iraq’s rebelling south, Soleimani rode together with PMU commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, to Baghdad airport, passing close to the US base as if to further snub supposed US impotence. His arrogance turned out to be fateful. Whether due to the looming US election, the heightened threat to the US Embassy and personnel or a long overdue response for Iran’s wanton use of violence against the US and it’s regional allies, the decision was taken to give Iran a black eye.


Already a chorus of condemnations against the US has been on replay. These seek to hoist responsibility on Washington for assassinating Soleimani rather than on Iran for its international operations which cost thousands of lives. Soleimani died because he killed. He was targeted because his death will send a message to Iran and its proxies: the US is not only deployed as fodder for Iranian guns, that it can also be unmoored and that its retribution will be comprehensive.


Among the US’s Gulf allies, while there is fear that they will be targeted as an arms-length revenge by the IRGC, Hezbollah, the Houthis (etc) the threat level is not significantly higher than before. Iran was already conducting acts of ballistic warfare against Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah was already bombing Bahrain. The only thing that has changed is that the restrains will be lifted and the US will fight back for its allies.


What happens next is anyone’s guess. However, if the Islamic Republic is even half as prudent as it claims to be, then the Ayatollah ought to stand his country down or else face increasing punishment from the US. With continuous civil unrest across Iran, with pushback in Lebanon and Iraq and now with thoughtful US retaliation, 2020 may very well spell the end of Khomeini’s revolutionary ideal, just as it started with the killing of a mass murderer.

04 January 2020

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