[Prefatory Note: 2020 hardly began when the news reported the shocking MQ9 Reaper Drone assassination of General Qassim Soleimani on Januarary 3rd shortly after he landed at the Baghdad Airport to begin a discreet diplomatic mission to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the time, I felt this was provocative and self-defeating, as well as unlawful and criminal, as to deed and precedent. After a year those initial reactions seem even more appropriate than they did at the time. If the United States is setting the operative rules of world politics it is doing itself no positive service by such behavior, and with drones proliferating at a rapid rate, encouraging forces of disorder, whether governments or political movements. Published below are two efforts of mine to comprehend the many facets of this most unfortunate and humanly tragic incident, which was reinforced by the apparent Mossad murder by remotely controlled explosives of the senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th while driving in a suburb of Tehran. The first selection is a short essay entitled ‘Remembering General Soleimani,’ and the second is an interview titled Responses Questions of Tasnim News Agency on the 1st anniversary of General Qassim Soleimani’s Assassination by U.S. drone on 3 Jan 2020.]
Remembering General Qassim Soleimani
This first anniversary of the assassination of General Qassim Soleimani, provides an occasion to remember not only the man but the nature of the act, the precedent set, and degree to which Iran and the region have become the main hunting ground of post-colonial Western imperialism. It is also relevant to take note of Mossad’s apparent responsibility for the targeted killing of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, ten months later. Although for the world 2020 will be primarily remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Iranians, although themselves hard hit by the virus further aggravated by U.S. sanctions maintained despite many international humanitarian pleas, the year will be long primarily associated with these acts of state terror.
Without shame or even the typical ruse of ‘deniability,’ Donald Trump made no secret of his role in ordering, and even claiming credit for the killing of General Soleimani, while this stateman/military commander was arriving in Baghdad at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Iraq to engage in discussions with Saudi Arabian officials with the purpose of deescalating regional tensions. Trump claimed without the slightest proof that killing Soleimani staved off an imminent attack on American diplomatic facilities. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callimard, made clear in an official Human Rights Council report concentrating on this event that the use drone weaponry to assassinate a top leader of a foreign country, without presenting a shred of evidence for the purported U.S. justification that there existed a threat of an attack on American diplomatic facilities, is more serious than a violation of international human rights law. According to her report the assassination amounts to ‘an act of war’ that violated the core norm of the UN Charter, which in Article 2(4) prohibits recourse to aggressive forms of international force. The world is fortunate that Iran did not exercise its defensive rights beyond a gesture of retaliation that caused no fatalities. The fact that the assassination occurred in Iraq, a third country, without the consent of the government was a further aggravating factor. It continues to produce calls for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the country, and has bolstered those Iraqi forces demanding an end to the U.S. occupation that began more than 17 years ago.
There are additional lessons to be learned in thinking about the life and death of General Soleimani. An important lesson for Americans is to appreciate the degree to which tying their role in the Middle East to Israeli priorities brings negative consequences for the wider national interests in the region. The most important achievement of General Soleimani was to be the most effective anti-ISIS leader in the struggle against extremist barbarism in the region, which built upon his earlier efforts to weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan. In effect, the only real threat to legitimate American security interests came from ISIS, and earlier Al Qaeda. Seen in this light, to regard Iran as Enemy #1 was to misinterpret U.S. interests, and to perpetuate earlier mistakes in grand strategy, above all the 2003 attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq, in ways that were extremely costly in lives, expenses, and reputation, while producing a political outcome that realized none of the goals of this military (mis)adventure. If U.S interests in the Middle East were appraised free from distortions attributable to the Israeli lobby and the pro-Israeli bureaucracy in Washington, Netanyahu’s leverage in Washington would not exist, and long ago the U.S. Government would have taken the sensible step of normalizing relations with Iran, which would have diminished chaos and tensions thoughout the entire MENA region.
I believe that Obama arrived at the White House with the intention to achieve this reset of U.S./Iran relation. Obama tried skillfully to move out of a policy orbit shaped in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, angering the Israeli leadership to such an extent that the Trump presidency, despite its overall irresponsibility, was enthusiastically embraced by an Israel extremely displeased with the Obama effort despite its limited results. What Obama tried to do was to remove anxieties about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions, formalized in the Joint Comprehensive Program of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) agreement unanimously supported by the P-5 membership of the Security Council plus Germany in 2015. I was surprised at the time that Iran was willing to accept a diplomatic outcome that curtailed its nuclear program without raising objections to Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, for Israel and Saudi Arabia JCPOA was treated as a betrayal, and Trump re-bonded with these two states by repudiating and then withdrawing from this breakthrough agreement in 2018. Without question Trump seemed motivated to undo this major diplomatic achievement by his predecessor as president to dramatize his anachronistic commitment to an ‘America First’ foreign policy that rejected internationalism in all its forms. Trump also withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement for similar anti-Obama, ultra-nationalist reasons.
We are led to wonder, with the advent of the Biden presidency, whether the Obama approach will be restored with respect to Iran, and if so, in what manner and with what effort to balance such an accommodating diplomacy with Iran while trying not to upset Israeli support groups too much, having witnessed at close range Israel’s dirty pushback tactics. The litmus test of Baden’s diplomacy will be revealed by whether Washington insists on more stringent limitations on Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, and even more so, if it links its renewed participation in the JCPOA with a demand that Iran disavow its regional diplomacy in such countries as Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Such one-sided enlargements of the scope of what is agreed beyond its nuclear program is highly unlikely to be acceptable in Iran, and for good reasons, given the interventions of Saudi Arabia and Israel in these conflicts. This anticipated reluctance would also antagonize hardline opinions in Iran, and likely partly express a lingering resentment about the targeted killing of General Soleimani, an individual who was not only beloved and revered by the Iranian people but was considered an extremely promising future president for the country, someone regarded by close Iranian observers as second in importance only to the Supreme Guide, who was beloved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Q1: As you know, the US assassinated Lieutenant General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, and their companions by targeting their vehicles outside Baghdad International Airport on January 3. The act of terror was carried out under the direction of Trump, with the Pentagon taking responsibility for the strike. How do you see the role of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and certain Arab states in the region in killing?
R1: I have no inside information on the undisclosed connections between the states mentioned in the question and the assassination of Lieut. General Soleimani, but offer some generalizations based on the public reactions of these governments to the event and their general approach to the confrontation with Iran. Two things are clear. First, Israel and Saudi Arabia officially and explicitly welcomed the killing of Gen. Soleimani for reasons different than those put forward by the United States, while disavowing any connection with the event; secondly, the Arab governments, and even some Israeli strategists, acknowledged being wary of the possible consequences associated with feared Iranian retaliations and a regional escalation of tensions. It seemed that the most respected analysts of Israeli security interests were urging their government to do its utmost to deescalate the confrontational approach that had been previously advocated. Such moderating moves seemed to reflect an awareness of the vulnerabilities of Israel and the Gulf countries to Iranian missile attacks and overall worries about regime security. With these considerations in mind, it makes sense that these governments insisted that the U.S. acted on its own, without prior consultation or encouragement. Some reports in the Arab media alleged that Qatar should be viewed as complicit because the drone that responsible for this act of state terror was apparently launched from the U.S. Udeid air base in their country, but there was no indication of any advanced knowledge, much less participation, by Qatar before the attack was launched. The apparent reconciliation between Qatar and the Saudi-led Gulf coalition at the start of 2021 may also be interpreted as part of this moderating trend, perhaps also a cautionary reaction to the defeat of Trump’s bid for reelection and uncertainties associated with how Biden will approach the region.
Of great concern is the failure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to condemn the event. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callamard, did issue a report on July 6, 2020 that concluded that the targeted killing of such a prominent military leader as General Soleimani was not only a violation of international human rights law, but ‘an act of war’ that violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. This important report does highlight the use of drones as creating a class of weaponry that erodes the distinction between war and peace, and creates a threat to all countries and their population. The international tolerance of such state behavior is totally unacceptable, aggravated in this instance by being openly authorized by the head of state of a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. The rapid proliferation of attack drones also adds a destabilizing dimension that makes the Soleimani killing a particularly dangerous precedent.
In short, for Israel the elimination of Iran’s most effective military commander was viewed as reducing the security threat posed by Iran’s regional influence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, supposedly surrounding Israel with unpredictable political forces. Eliminating the architect of Iran’s regional influence was viewed as a positive development from the perspective of Israeli security that deems itself as virtually ‘at war’ with Iran. Yet even some Israeli strategic commentary at the time of the assassination tended to worry about such a high-profile assassination being treated as an ‘act of war’ by Iran intensifying risks of an unwanted all out conflict urging, contrary to Trump and Netanyahu, offsetting concessions to Iran. Some Israeli security experts urged the unconditional revival of the JCPOA deal relating to Iran’s nuclear program and even the elimination of sanctions.
For Saudi Arabia, in particular, although insisting that it had no role in the assassination viewed it partly through the perspective of finally overcoming Trump’s refusal to respond to the psychologically and material damaging September 2019 drone attack on the state-owned Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Ehurais located in eastern Saudi Arabia. These attacks although emanating from Yemen were attributed to Iran, at least indirectly. In this regard, the assassination was interpreted as responsive to the Saudi (and Israeli) criticisms of the Obama presidency’s moves toward normalization with Iran, as well as of Trump’s allegedly timid responses to prior provocations and some concern that withdrawals of American forces from Iraq, which was viewed with alarm as the beginning of U.S. strategic disengagement from the region.
Q2: General Soleimani is viewed by the world’s freedom-seeking people as the key figure in defeating Daesh/ISIS, the world’s most notorious terrorist group, in the Middle East battles. What are your thoughts on Gen. Soleimani’s character and his role in fighting terrorism?
R2: I am aware of the revered status of Gen. Soleimani for his various roles in defense of the Iranian Revolution and in opposition to the spread of U.S. and Israeli influence in the region. He had that rare quality of being a military commander whose intelligence and political leadership were widely appreciated at all levels of Iranian society, from the Supreme Guide to the Iranian citizenry. Over the course of the last ten years there have been many reports that he was being urged to become a presidential candidate in Iran. It is significant in my view that Gen. Soleimani was killed while on a diplomatic mission mediated by Iraq to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to believe that the assassination was timed to disrupt such a move, but its occurrence surely had the effect of intensifying regional tensions in a highly provocative, lawless manner that generated widespread calls in Iran and Iraq for revenge and retaliation. Iran has formally issued a warrant for the arrest of Trump on charges of premeditated murder, which according to the Iranian penal code imposes a death sentence. Iran has asked Intepol for assistance in inducing police forces around the world to implement the arrest warrant.
By and large, commentators on the assassination in the West, including critics of Trump’s presidency, viewed the event from a narrow American perspective. This meant highlighting Gen. Soleimani’s role both in Iraqi violent resistance to the American occupation and in giving overall help to the general opposition throughout the region to Washington’s strategic priorities, including Hezbollah and Hamas, the Damascus government, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. What was not stressed, and rarely acknowledged, was Gen. Soleimani extremely effective role not only in defeating Daesh (or ISIS) in the Syria and Iraq, but also in temporarily neutralizing the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the Mossad official, Yossi Alpher, correctly noted of the fallen military leader: “He was a highly intelligent strategic thinker who understood how to wage asymmetric warfare.” Contrast this assessment with the words of Thomas Friedman, the liberal icon of American journalism, writing in an opinion piece published in the immediate aftermath of the event. Friedman praised Trump for ordering the assassination of “possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.” [“Trump Kills Iran’s Most Overrated Warrior,” Jan. 3, 2020.] Why dumb? Because Gen. Soleimani role in expanding Iran’s regional resistance to U.S. regional interventions prompted Washington to take major countermeasures that had an overall disastrous impact on Iran. In effect, the United States’ imperial role was legitimate, and to challenge it, was not only illegitimate but self-defeating as the killing of their leading military commander demonstrates.
Viewing Gen. Soleimani’s role more objectively, a larger geopolitical distortion is revealed. The United States real security concerns over the course of the past twenty years were associated with eliminating threats of transnational extremist violence that culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. It is only through an acceptance of Israel’s and the Gulf monarchies’ regional priorities that made rational either the attack on Iraq in 2003 or the repeated efforts to destabilize Iran. To some extent Obama did somewhat recognize that reaching an accommodation with Iran and continuing to support the national security of Israel were not necessarily contradictory. In contrast, Trump, whether wittingly or not, subordinates U.S. national interests to the Israeli/Gulf sectarian view of Middle East politics. At this point, with the imminent prospect of Biden’s presidency there is reason to be cautiously hopeful about the formulation of a policy for the Middle East that is more coherent, less Israeli driven, less guided by impulse, and more oriented toward achieving stability rather than seeking ‘solutions’ based on coercive diplomacy.
Q3: How do you see the future of the region after the assassination of Gen. Soleimani? Do you think that foreign troops including the US forces will be forced out of the region and Iraq at people’s will?
R3: The turmoil throughout the region, along with interventions by geopolitical actors, makes predictions hazardous. There are some encouraging indications that Biden seeks to revive JCPOA as soon as possible and seeks order and moderation throughout the Middle East. Such post-Trump modifications will not be undertaken without taking Israel’s views into account, but to what extent is at present unknown. Israel will certainly try its best to condition the renewal of American participation in JCPOA on imposing new, more stringently restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is also likely to insist that the U.S. receive assurances from Iran that it will no longer extend material support Islamic political tendencies in the region as exemplified by Hezbollah and Hamas. Upholding such assurances would be correlated with reducing sanctions. It seems unlikely that Iran would be willing to end its support for self-determination and human rights in Israel/Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon, and more controversially, governmental legitimacy and counterinsurgency in Syria. And if such a political surrender were to be accepted by Iran’s current elected leadership, it would be effectively challenged from within the country.
The Arab acceptance of normalization agreements with Israel are not likely to be challenged by the Biden presidency, although brought about by American inducements, including advanced weaponry and a greater commitment of the U.S. to extend its security protection beyond Israel. In this regard, should a second Arab Spring occur in Gulf countries or Egypt, it is likely that Washington will more overtly side with the established order, no matter how repressive.
Of relevance as well is whether China and Russia will play more active diplomatic roles in the region, either seeking alignment or as offering an alternative to the American imperial presence. Such speculation depends in part on whether the U.S. adopts confrontational approaches to Russia in relation to Ukraine and Crimea and to China with respect to international trade relations and tensions in the South China Seas. Unless the U.S. disengages from its reliance on global militarism as the basis of its foreign policy, which seems highly unlikely, there are almost certain to be troubled waters in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. More than Trump, the Biden presidency is likely to adopt a foreign policy of the sort that resurrects the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that was borne shortly after the World War II, and persisted throughout the long Cold War. The essence of this consensus is the exaggeration of security threats so as to justify political support for high peacetime military budgets.
It is finally possible that energy geopolitics will also exert an influence over how relations with Iran evolve. It seems to serve OPEC’s interest to restrict Iran’s energy export markets, but if European or Asian demands rise, the reintegration of Iran in the world economy is like to receive strong backing that could change the balance in the Middle East, especially if confrontation with China dominates U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead.