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The Iranian Reaction to the Killing of Soleimani

If the administration wanted to find a way to trigger a war with Iran that bolsters the Iranian government's standing at home, this is how to do it.
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The Iranian reaction to the Trump administration’s killing of Soleimani has been predictably angry and full of talk of revenge:

The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to anticipating how an adversary will respond to our actions. The administration is absurdly portraying this escalation against Iran as a “defensive action,” but to the Iranians it seems like excessive and outrageous attack and they are reacting accordingly. U.S. officials are claiming that killing Soleimani is a preventive measure intended to stop future attacks on Americans, but it is practically guaranteed to have the opposite result. The administration has made it clear that Soleimani was the intended target, so we have to conclude that they didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing.

Most Americans probably don’t realize how well-respected and popular Soleimani was inside Iran. Mohammad Ali Shabani explains:

By 2014, when he successfully halted Islamic State’s attempt to overrun Iraq, Suleimani was feted as a hero among Iraqis, alongside the local commanders including al-Muhandis. The same response was evident in Iran, where he quickly became a household name and was rumoured as a potential future president – a trend that was strengthened by the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

So the US has not merely killed an Iranian military commander but also a highly popular figure, viewed as a guardian of Iran even among secular-minded Iranians.

Imagine how angrily we would respond if a foreign government assassinated a high-profile, well-liked military officer while he was traveling inside an allied country, and that might give us some idea of how Iranians perceive this attack. That matters because it means that there will be tremendous pressure on the Iranian government to respond to the attack, and it also means that there will be political support for retaliation. If the administration wanted to find a way to trigger a war with Iran that bolsters the Iranian government’s standing at home, this is how to do it.

The U.S. also has a record of achieving tactical military successes while failing horribly at achieving our strategic goals. Killing Soleimani obviously doesn’t put a stop to Iran’s activities in the region, and if anything the attack will increase Iran’s influence in Iraq. Once again, the U.S. violated Iraqi sovereignty and attacked one of their own militia leaders in the same strike. Barbara Slavin comments on the implications of the assassination:

Killing General Suleimani will not destroy this network of partners and proxies, but it will give them a celebrated new “martyr” to avenge. Both Lebanon and Iraq will experience more violence; the American presence in Iraq will become increasingly untenable; the biggest beneficiaries will be Sunni fundamentalists like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which will be thrilled to see their two biggest enemies coming to blows.

The U.S. is constantly outmaneuvered politically by other states that understand their own regions far better than we ever will, and our government’s reflexive response is to try to kill our way to success. Yesterday’s attack was a colossal mistake that will haunt the U.S. for years to come, and it is the result of cultivating relentless hostility towards a country that doesn’t pose a real threat to the security of the United States. This war didn’t have to happen and it could have been easily avoided many times in recent years, but the Trump administration chose provocation and escalation instead. Judging from what Iranian officials are saying, we should expect Iran to respond in kind before long.



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