Earlier this week, the United States fired a missile which killed the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. Less reported, but almost as significant, is that the missile also killed the leader of the largest militia group in Iraq with whom Soleimani was meeting.
Immediately after the strikes, politics stepped in and bitter partisans started making comments, issuing press releases either saying the missile strike was the greatest thing ever or that it was the first step toward World War III. With a couple of days perspective, the situation and the responses have become a bit clearer, as has all the political posturing back and forth
And as usual, the truth is more nuanced.
What is not in question is that Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups in Iraq had attacked the US Embassy there for two days. The United States launched a missile strike days later that killed the leader of the largest Shiite militia group in Iraq, and Soleimani who is the Iranian General who heads the Quds Force, Iran’s special branch of the army that are considered ‘guardians of the Islamic Revolution’.
What is also not in question is that the Quds Force has been declared a terrorist organization by several international groups and countries, because they also are tasked with working with foreign militia groups around the region and for projecting Iranian power throughout the Middle East. Specifically, they are the branch of the Iranian armed forces who trained the Iraqi militias in the use of IEDs and supplied them with weapons they used to fight Iraqi, US and allied troops.
There is no doubt that Soleimani and the radical Muslim militia leader were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US, Iraqi and allied troops and, more recently, the death of US contractor on Dec. 28 and then the attacks on the US Embassy days later. And according to the Administration, Soleimani was in Baghdad to help plan a larger attack on the US Embassy, and that is why the attack happened now (in this bitter political environment, no one who opposes Trump believes that but they also are unable to explain why Soleimani was in Baghdad meeting with radical militia leaders) The real issue is that the attack was an escalation in the sense that it is the first time that the US responded by killing an Iranian government official. Previously, responses to attacks had targeted the militia groups that carried them out. This time it was different.
And that is important, and makes this attack more bold (bold, also implying more risk) than any previous. Critics who have said that this was going to lead to WW III, and the ‘anti-war protests’ that followed, were just silly. They were more concerned about being critical of President Trump than about being reasonable. To suggest that the only alternatives between the air strike and all out global war is just stupid, frankly.
However, that is not to say the attack was not without significant risk. To kill an official of a foreign government is a big deal. And in this case, it was not only a high ranking general but one who was very visible and closely aligned with the religious leaders of the country. At the time, we did not know how Iran would respond.
Retired Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when interviewed the day after the attack said that he was ultimately in favor of the strike but that he worried about an ‘off ramp’ and how the US and Iran would back away. Gen. David Petraeus (Ret) said in interview that he was also in favor of taking out Soleimani but knew there were risks of escalation. If we recall, Petraeus’ reputation is made, in large part, by his understanding that fighting in the modern world is very different. It is not necessarily two nations whose armies are fighting and the need to think of things differently in that context.
Iran’s practice, which Soleimani has led and carried out, has been much like a stereotypical organized crime boss-they have militia groups around the region that they arm, fund and train behind the scenes and who do the work for them and that way they can claim that they are never directly involved. Up until now, the US and our allies have only responded by striking back at the militias. Much like law enforcement that only arrests and jails the low level criminals but never get to the criminal masterminding the organization, so has been the response in fighting Iran backed terror groups. That changed earlier this week.
As it turns out, Iran was outraged but also realized how significant the attack was from the opposite perspective—the US no longer was just going to respond by attacking Iran’s allies but was going to hold it accountable. And this was evidenced by its reaction. Within two days, Iran hit back with an attack of over a dozen missiles on US bases. Yet we also know that Iran notified Iraq and other ‘back channel’ countries such as Finland (yes Finland) that an attack was coming, obviously knowing these ‘back channel’ countries would tell the US. So, the US got warning of an attack and had time to prepare and get troops out of harm’s way. Additionally, after the attacks Iran also notified Iraq and several ‘back channel’ countries that those attacks were it, that their response to the killing of Soleimani was done.
And, on the converse, the US recognized that Iran had to ‘save face’ and respond to the outrage of its people but that they did so in such a way not to cause great harm. So the US did not respond to the Iranian missile attack on its bases.
As a result of very measured responses on both sides, the crisis de-escalated. That is not to say that Iran will have a total change and won’t be a supporter of terrorism as it has been in the past. And it’s not to say that radical militias won’t continue to attack the US, Iraq and allied targets. But it isn’t WW III. And Iran has been sent a strong message.
It looks like, at least now, that President Trump’s decision to attack the radical militia leader and Soleimani sent a clear message that things are different now. Iran can no longer support terrorism and be sure that it won’t be attacked directly. And Iran’s very careful response, even with the public outrage it expressed, seemed to recognize that there are limits to what it can do without repercussions and there is new ‘chess board’ that they are playing on.