The Assassination of Soleimani & the Prospects of Peace in Southwest Asia
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
According to a widely held view, an assassination of an heir-apparent caused a “Great War” in the past, even though the assassination was carried out by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist. The assassination of Major General Soleimani, on the other hand, an officer of a branch of the armed forces of a sovereign nation, was ordered by Trump, the president of the most powerful country in the world. There are good reasons to believe that this event could only lead to more violence in a region already crippled by wars. However, two facts, at least, give us reason to believe that this assassination could bring peace not more violence. First, the region, Southwest Asia and North Africa is already in the middle of a global war through proxies for nearly a decade. Second, Iran’s measured retaliation to the assassination, though executed by state’s armed forces, may have reduced the prospects of another “Great War.”
To understand the significance of the recent events involving the U.S. and Iran, it is important and necessary that cultural, religious, military, and geopolitical elements are carefully considered. This note relies on facts, not politics or spin, to make the case that the retaliation to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani could and would bring peace to Southwest Asia.
For about 40 years, the U.S.-Iran relation has been marked by extreme hostility. Iran blames the U.S. for orchestrating coups and overthrowing democratically elected governments, propping the brutal and unpopular Shah’s regime, supporting Saddam Hussein during his 8-year war on Iran, deliberately shooting down an Iranian passenger airplane, and actively working towards a regime change in Iran since 1980.
The U.S. holds the Iranian government responsible for the fifty-two American diplomats and citizens held hostage for 444 days during the 1979 revolution. Moreover, the U.S. government accuses the Iranian government of using or supporting actors who use terrorism, destabilizing the region, and developing nuclear weapons.
None of the grievances and accusations on either side was ever adequality discussed directly and bilaterally between the two governments. Only two issues were addressed but still in the context of multilateral initiatives and/or through international institutions.
- Iran took the U.S. to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the shooting of the Iran Air Flight 655. The ICJ case was dropped in 1996 when the US “expressed deep regret” and agreed to pay $61.8 million to the victims’ families, without admitting legal responsibility.
- In 2015, Iran and the P5+1 (the UNSC permanent members and Germany) reached a deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions, mostly U.S. imposed sanctions. But this was also a multi-party agreement approved by the UNSC, not a bilateral agreement between the governments of Iran and U.S. Yet, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, reinstated all sanctions, and imposed new ones.
The Trump administration claimed that the deal was unfair and wanted to force Iran, through a strategy of “maximum pressure,” to re-negotiate a new deal that would curb not only its nuclear program, but also its influence in the region, its ballistic missile program, and its support of terrorists. Iran said that its missile program is defensive and therefore non-negotiable. Iran also denied that it supports terrorists. Iran admitted that it supports Hezbollah and some Palestinian groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front) but considers them legitimate resistance movements fighting for self-determination and for their rights. Additionally, Iran refused to renegotiate a deal that was already signed and supported by six governments, including the U.S. government, and the UNSC. As to the nuclear concerns, Iran indicated that there is a standing religious decree that prohibits Iran from building and using nuclear weapons, making the program a peaceful one, and within its right under international treaties.
On January 3, some time after midnight (Baghdad time), a strike killed eight persons near Baghdad airport. One hour later, U.S. military issued a statement saying, in part, that, “under the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani.” Minutes later, Trump posted on twitter the image of the American flag, no words accompanied the image. Soon after, the Iranian supreme leader, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, posted on twitter a translation of the first verse of every chapter (except one) of the Quran: “In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” The events and the cryptic reactions worried the world community that another major military conflict is in the making.
For five days, U.S. and Iranian officials traded threats and counter threats. In many cities across Iran, massive mourning processions took place, adding the pressure of expectation of retaliation on the government of Iran. Before Soleimani’s remains were buried in his hometown, Kerman, and at the same time as the time of the strike that killed him had occurred five days earlier, about thirteen ballistic missiles hit a base housing U.S. troops and assets in Iraq. After the strike, Trump left a meeting without addressing the American public. The next day, in an 11 am address to the nation, Trump issued a brief statement, essentially announcing that he would respond to the Iranian strike economically, not militarily. Another “Great War” was averted, for the time being.
For the immediate future at least, it would seem that the Middle East, already a battle ground, will not experience another armed confrontation. The main reason is, despite that most analysists and commentators avoid pointing it out, is that Iran’s retaliation did not result in loss of human life, as far as we know at this point. Many theories tried to explain how could more than 12 ballistic missiles hit grounds housing more than 1,500 U.S. troops without causing any deaths.
On Wednesday, although Trump had already declared that the attack did not kill or wound any U.S. troops, major media outlets, quoting experts, declared that “they [Iranian military leaders] missed on purpose.” This strangle phraseology is not innocent and it deserve some explanation. The word “missed” means “failed to hit, reach, or come into contact with target.” The word “failed” means that the action was unsuccessful in achieving the desired goal. Those who launched the missiles must have intended to hit something. If they missed, they failed to hit their target. The missiles landed in the wrong, unintended location. They were erratic and imprecise. The data show that the strikes were precise, they fell within the base and they his specific buildings. “Missing on purpose,” therefore, makes no logical sense. It is a choice of words motivated by politics and deep-seated bigotry and prejudice.
For years, Western media represented Muslims (and some other peoples of color) as bloodthirsty, violent, and irrational. They expected Iranian leaders to exact a heavy price in the form loss of life, in retaliation for the loss of an important figure, as demonstrated by the massive mourning processions across the country. They did not think, and they cannot accept, that the Iranian leaders would be satisfied with a bloodless revenge, especially if such a revenge would allow them to preserve what appears to be a huge reservoir of good will from their people and quiet—instead of condemnation–from U.S. allies. So instead of saying that Iran opted for a strategic, calculated, and high-minded response, the media and their experts opted for the nonsensical, bigoted characterization of the outcome, “missed on purpose.”
Just before the retaliatory strike, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, released an official statement saying that, “years of wishing for martyrdom finally reached dear Soleimani, this high position, as his pure blood was shed by the most miserable human being on earth.” After the strike, on January 9, during a detailed briefing, the leader of Iran’s Air-Space Force, Amir Ali Hajji-Zadeh, said that “no life can replace the life of Soleimani, not even Trump’s.” He added that the strike “was not intended to kill American troops.” The question, then, is: what was the goal of the attack on U.S. base in Iraq?
For the leaders of Iran, the stated goal is clear, and they made it explicit: removing U.S. troops from the region. Leaders of Iran have maintained that the presence of outside forces in the Middle East is an element of instability. They have argued that if countries of the region were to be left to govern themselves by themselves and without intervention from outsiders, they will be more cognizant of their mutual interests and more likely to arrange their relations with their neighbors according to those mutual interests and concerns. The counter argument provided by those seeking the presence of foreign troops in the region is that, Iran would impose its will on its weaker neighbors. The presence of U.S. troops is, therefore, a deterrent. In the context of this debate, the assassination of Soleimani and the measured Iranian retaliation can be seen as most significant event.
First, this is the first time, since the second world war that the U.S. was attacked directly and did not respond militarily. Perhaps, that is because it struck first and struck in a very disproportionate fashion.
Second, the precision of the attack and its success in reaching the targets have changed the rules of engagement and how Iran is the be perceived. Iran was able to tell the U.S. government and its neighbors within range of its missiles that it can attack directly, not through proxies, and attack with precision. That statement, once proved by the strike on Ayn al-Asad, became a source of deep concern for countries across the Gulf. If the U.S. government were to attack Iran mainland from any of the bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and/or UAE, Iran will be able to retaliate directly and with the same precision. In other words, the presence of U.S. troops is no longer a deterrent, the defensive shields they bought will not prevent all the missiles from hitting their targets, and none of their precious assets can be outside the reach of Iran’s missiles.
Third, Iran has been portrayed by its adversaries as a country run by fanatics, irrational leaders who lack the courage and will to confront Iran’s adversaries directly. Instead, they had claimed that Iran uses terrorism to kill innocent people and launch indiscriminate, reckless attacks. Importantly, Iran’s adversaries have claimed that, because Iran is undemocratic, irrational, and blood-thirsty, it should not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon. The strike on Ayn al-Asad shattered this narrative.
- Iran did not use any of its allies/proxy to respond,
- Iran’s weapons hit their targets,
- Iran’s weapons were precise,
- Strike did not kill civilians or troops,
- Strike was strictly military,
- Attack was announced and the country in which attack took place was alerted, and
- Attack was planned, studied, and deliberate–hardly an act of an irrational, erratic fanatics.
Importantly, it was ironic that the first words of Trump’s statement after Iran’s retaliatory strike were describing his determination to prevent Iran from ever building a nuclear weapon. It is ironic for two reasons at least. One, just days earlier, Trump declared that he will destroy Iran’s cultural sites, a war crime. Second, Trump, despite his erratic actions, is the one with access to codes of actual, deployable nuclear weapons. Iran’s religious leaders have already prohibited nuclear weapons. The recent events made it abundantly clear that others are likely to commit war crimes against them, not the reverse.
It is too early to predict what the future of the region will be in the light of these events that are yet to reach finality. However, based on data about Iran from the past 40 years, and in the light of what just had happened, there are reasons to be optimistic about a more peaceful Southwest Asian and North African. U.S. under this administration or another, is likely to de-escalate its actions against Iran because there is nothing beyond “maximum pressure”. Trump’s maximum pressure did not produce the desired outcomes and now military pressure backfired. Any government with institutions, even if led by erratic leaders, will have to change course and consider other options when the tools do not produce the desired results. Iran’s ability to inflict measured and precise damage on any country that attacks it establishes a new strategic equilibrium that must force its neighbors, especially the Saudi rulers, to adjust their calculus via-à-vis Iran. Reports that Soleimani was about to deliver Iran’s response to a Saudi proposal for de-escalation mediated by Iraqi PM, Adil Abdul Mahdi, is supportive of this assessment. Considering the fact that Iran had already put forward its “Hormuz Peace Initiative”, a non-aggression pact, to its Gulf neighbors, reasons for optimism would dwarf causes of pessimistic.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.