Qasem Soleimani – Some Aspects | Charles Duelfer

Qasem Soleimani – Some Aspects

The United States (over two Administrations) and the international community expended much effort rolling back ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This included attempts to kill the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–ultimately successful just last October. ISIS killed a few Americans. Qasem Soleimani and his al-Quds force (part of the Iranian Revolutionry Guard Corps, IRGC) killed hundreds of Americans over the years in Iraq. Why did the US only act now on Soeleimani? What’s the difference?

There are a few key reasons. First, al-Baghdadi was not part of a recognized state. Soleimani ran a key part of the Iranian government. Only recently (April) did the US designate the IRGC to be a foreign terrorist organization. Only then was Soleimani in a legal position akin to al-Baghdadi.

During the Obami Administration, the focus of US Iran policy was the nuclear deal. Everything else was secondary. They did not like Soleimani, but did not want to risk the nuclear deal no matter how odious the his work in Iraq and elsewhere.

During the Bush Administration, there were a tangle of Iraq and Iran issues and Soleimani’s primacy as cause of the problems was not yet so clear. In retrospect, it would have been less problematic if they had dealt with him one way or another.

Other aspects:

Iraqi miscalculation? Soleimani was killed after arriving at Baghdad airport (personal note: very close to where I lived through 2004 whilst running the Iraq Survey Group–and saw the effects of Soleimani’s efforts against US forces–including at Baghdad airport). Why did he not think he was at risk?

Clearly Iran knows a lot about US drones–they have shot them down on multiple occasions. They must have some knowledge of drone activity over Iraq and they must have some knowledge about US tracking activities. They missed something very important. Either they assumed the US did not have the will to attack him–they misinterpreted how far they could go. Or, they underestimated US ability to track him. They will have a lot of internal questioning about that.

Retaliation by Iran has been clearly stated and is expected. There are a range of options. Killing Soleimani was personal. The US killed one of there top people. Iran will likely focus on US-specific interests, not broad strokes like attacking the Saudi Oil infrastructure as they did last September. There are many exposures the US has around the world. It is also worth noting the asymmetrical vulnerability the US has to cyber-attacks. Iran can attack any US commercial entity, like banks, and create more domestic disputes within the US.

Iran will be attuned to President Trump’s political circumstances. He is being impeached. Ironically, there are similarities with President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. At that time the US and Iraq (under Saddam) were at loggerheads over weapons inspections. Both the impeachment and inspection problems came to a head in December and Clinton ordered a 4-day bombing exercise when inspectors left Iraq. Iraq acted throughout the period calculating the weakness of the Clinton administration during the domestic impeachment proceedings. (They described this to me and others after the last war.) Iran will certainly be taking stock of the domestic debates in Washington and seek any advantage they can exploit.

There is some potential bright side to this. President Trump said Iran has never won a war nor lost a negotiation. He clearly does not want another war, but does not want to be pushed around. The willingness to negotiate may (or may not) affect the extent and persistence of Iranian response. Potentially back-channel or track II discussions could be valuable.

Completely complicating this is Iraq. What happens there is now subject to US-Iran dynamics. Likewise the potential progress in Yemen and other flashpoints in the region.

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