There’s an old story – apocryphal, as the best stories always seem to be – that Richard Nixon asked Chinese premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution, and Zhou said, “It’s too soon to tell.” At first blush, the minicrisis between Iran and the United States appears to have ended well for the U.S., but it may be too soon to tell.
On the positive side of the ledger, Trump’s action rid the world of an effective terror master. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds (“Jerusalem”) force, was instrumental in creating Hezbollah, which has been responsible for attacks around the globe and has specifically targeted the United States and Israel. Hezbollah was behind the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, as well as the embassy annex the following year. They kidnapped CIA station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death. In 1985, Hezbollah hijacked a TWA airliner and killed a U.S. Navy diver, dropping his body onto the airport tarmac.
The Quds force also supports Sunni terrorists like Hamas and al-Qaida (though it fought ISIS) and has carried out multiple terror attacks against Israel. During the Iraq War, Soleimani was “credited” with developing the IEDs that took the lives of at least 600 Americans. U.S. General David Petraeus recounted a message he once received from the terror leader: “Gen. Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.” He didn’t mention Yemen, as that war came a bit later, but Iran was behind the Houthis as well. Most devastating, in terms of body count, has been Soleimani’s participation in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. That bloodbath has taken the lives of more than 500,000 Syrians and displaced more than 11 million more (6 million internally and 5.6 million external refugees).
Soleimani’s death is likely to be a short-term setback for Iran’s imperial ambitions. Also on the positive side of the ledger is the fact that Iran was reduced to lying to the Iranian people about its retaliation. Rather than risk killing Americans and thereby inviting further conflict, Iran chose to fire (misfire?) missiles at a couple of Iraqi bases while claiming on state media that 80 Americans had died. That was about as clear a climbdown as you get in an international crisis.
On the negative side of the ledger, Iran has now withdrawn from abiding by the limitations of the nuclear agreement, and whatever the flaws of that pact (I strenuously opposed it), it was still better to have Iran in compliance than not. Nor would it be crazy for Iran to conclude, after this humiliation at America’s hands, that nuclear weapons are more desirable than ever.
Further, if our goal was to weaken internal support for the Iranian regime, we may not have succeeded. A month ago, Iran’s cities were rocked by mass protests over the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices by 300%. Up to 600 protesters were killed and as many as 7,000 arrested. Now, we have triggered a nationalistic reflex, and the streets are thronged by mourners for the “martyr” Soleimani.
It was not necessarily in our interest to have alienated Iraqis to the point where a resolution was passed in parliament demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. While it’s true that the Kurds and Sunnis did not participate in that nonbinding vote, it is nevertheless some measure of the animosity we’ve engendered. Nor was the situation improved by presidential tweets threatening severe sanctions on Iraq. It would be Iran’s fondest wish for America to leave – or even better – to be chased out of Iraq.
If we know anything about the clerics in Tehran, it’s that they nurse long grudges, and they are happy to take revenge on innocent civilians as well as military targets. In 1988, the U.S. destroyed half of the Iranian navy in Operation Praying Mantis. Eight years later, Hezbollah detonated a bomb at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which housed American Marines. Twenty were killed and nearly 500 wounded.
After Israel assassinated an Iranian nuclear scientist, Iran’s retaliation took the form of targeting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand. Frequently, Iran disclaims responsibility, as it did regarding the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
For good or ill, it is unlikely that this chapter is closed.