Killing Soleimani: How Trump united Iran against America

For four decades Iran has been a perpetual underdog. Its conventional military is weak. It is surrounded by an array of extremely well-armed, fiercely hostile powers. It has very few state allies. A brutal war – never to be forgotten in Iran – resulted in a million deaths. And a long, sordid history of American malign influence – from overthrowing a democratically-elected Iranian government (for oil) to propping up a tyrannical regime – elevates national security to the forefront of the Persian psyche.

To millions of his countrymen, General Qassem Soleimani embodied Iran’s defense against a laundry list of existential threats. Soleimani – by far the most popular figure in Iran when he died – served as the central player in managing Iranian relationships with armed “proxy” groups. Given Iran’s unenviable strategic position, such groups provide Tehran with an asymmetric deterrent against attack. Due to his efforts – from the battlefield to the negotiating table – Iranians of all political stripes viewed Soleimani as a humble, low-key guardian of their country. His death unites a deeply fractured population against America. Trump’s follow-on threats to bomb Iran’s cultural sites only deepen and broaden Iranian anger and hostility.

Importantly, Iranian (and, thus, Soleimani’s) strategic priorities frequently aligned with American objectives. U.S. air power effectively provided cover to Soleimani’s fighters as they battled the Islamic State and its depraved barbarism. Soleimani organized militias fighting al Qaeda-linked groups from Syria to Yemen. Moreover, Soleimani worked tirelessly to keep the Syrian government – one of Iran’s few state allies – afloat. While the Syrian regime is ruthlessly authoritarian, Soleimani’s troops prevented its collapse, which would have resulted in yet another Middle Eastern power vacuum and drawn in thousands of jihadists, making the rise of the Islamic State seem like a picnic.

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Years earlier, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Soleimani worked with American intelligence officers in Afghanistan as U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban. But the budding U.S.-Iranian partnership against Sunni jihadism was not to last: Just as Soleimani prepared to lead a sweeping re-evaluation of Iranian relations with the United States, he (and the American diplomats working with him) were blindsided by President George W. Bush’s addition of Iran to his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech.

To be sure, Soleimani had American blood on his hands. Soleimani-linked militias killed hundreds of American troops in Iraq. But Soleimani’s violent actions must be viewed through a strategic lens. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq (and Bush’s addition of Iran to the “Axis of Evil”), Iranian decisionmakers – keenly aware of their weak conventional military and historically wary of invasion – sensed an existential threat.

For all intents and purposes, Iran was surrounded: Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in Iraq – to Iran’s west – and in Afghanistan, to its east. Rumblings at the time hinted that Iran (and its nascent nuclear program) was next on the Bush administration’s “invade” list. Soleimani’s attacks sought to bog American forces down in Iraq to forestall any potential U.S. attack against Iran.

Viewed slightly differently, Americans would be wise to consider what actions their government might take if faced with the prospect of invasion under similar circumstances (that is, surrounded by hostile forces, with very few allies and a weak conventional military). Those pointing to Soleimani’s role in American combat deaths in Iraq should ask why those troops were there in the first place.

At the time of his death, more than 80 percent of the Iranian public viewed Soleimani favorably. Importantly, his popularity enjoyed a significant boost following President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE’s imposition of an ill-advised “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement – supported by hundreds of experts, including key players in the U.S. and Israeli national security establishments – and the subsequent application of punishing sanctions pushed security back to the forefront of Iranian concerns. In short, Soleimani became more popular as Trump ratcheted up U.S.-Iranian tensions.

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At a time when protests against Iranian government corruption and dismal economic conditions peaked, President Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani handed a tremendous victory to the most vocal anti-American hardliners in Iran. The moderate government currently in power in Tehran – which had launched an aggressive crackdown on the most corrupt, anti-Western conservatives and restrained the hawks itching for conflict with the United States – will be sidelined even further as the voices demanding revenge gain considerable influence.

Moreover, as millions of Iranians took to the streets to mourn Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament is clamoring to eject U.S. troops from its soil. American troops in the Middle East have been forced to halt the fight against ISIS in order to defend against potential retaliatory attacks by Iranian-linked groups. And, perhaps more consequentially, Tehran announced a major reduction in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, easing the Islamic Republic’s path to a nuclear bomb. These developments, in conjunction with Iranian retaliatory measures yet to come, are likely to add Trump’s killing of Soleimani to a long list of colossal American blunders in the Middle East.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.