A hotbed of violence and political turmoil that seems to plague every administration has just been set on a direct collision course with the United States. With the death of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani at the hands of a U.S. drone, tensions are once again on the rise, and threats from both sides are the order of the day. The question the West is asking itself today is whether we are about to enter another long, costly, and perhaps unwinnable war in a region so far from home that most couldn’t even point to it on a map.
Soleimani, regarded as the second most powerful official in Iran, was targeted by a drone and killed on Thursday. He was taken out as a response to the New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which U.S. officials suggest was backed by the Iranian government.
For the Trump administration, this may turn out to be the most pyrrhic of victories. He has removed a threat to the U.S.; he has sent a clear message that Americans cannot be targeted in the Middle East without major retaliation. But as King Pyrrhus of Epirus said regarding his military engagements with Rome, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Sadly, it appears spin and blame have outweighed careful consideration in the halls of power. While a majority of lawmakers seem to agree that General Soleimani was indeed responsible for the deaths and injuries of hundreds if not thousands of American citizens, the matter has already become a political football.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) was one of the first in line to begin the narrative. He tweeted:
“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question. The question is this — as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Presidential candidate Joe Biden pursued the theme by first stating that Soleimani “deserved to be brought to justice” for his crimes against “thousands of innocents.” He then went on to claim that Trump had seriously, and without forethought, escalated the situation: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”
Americans on both sides of the political divide are rightly concerned that the killing of General Soleimani could lead to a major escalation in conflict and perhaps even a new war in the Middle East that will cost lives and resources. This all comes down to an equation that is being inarticulately cited by congressional lawmakers: Will Soleimani’s death lead to more lives lost or less?
Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) phrased the question in terms of terrorism. He argues:
“The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create. That’s an open question tonight as we await Iran’s reaction to Donald Trump’s escalation, which could ignite a regional war, with still no strategy from the Administration.”
How to kill more terrorists than we create? That is, indeed, the important element of the equation.
Iran is a country with severe internal problems. The ruling regime under President Hassan Rouhani is restrictive, tyrannical, and determined to cling to power no matter what. When the citizens of Iran march in the streets demanding more rights and an end to oppressive practices of government, displays of international strength bolster actual strength on the home front. If the Iranian leadership were to appear weak on the world stage, the people would be emboldened to take back power.
We need to examine which of the following statements is most likely to be true:
- Soleimani’s death encourages more people to devote their lives to terror and violence.
- Soleimani’s death shows that even the mighty can be toppled and discourages young men from devoting their lives to a losing cause.
A narrative is already forming in Iran as the early reactions are released. Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami said: “A crushing revenge will be taken for Soleimani’s unjust assassination … We will take revenge from all those involved and responsible for his assassination.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted:
“The US act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani … is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
An Unknown Future
Whether the equation will play out in favor of peace or war is impossible to discern. This is a propaganda war like no other that can only be resolved by one side or the other admitting defeat. Was President Trump right to order the killing of Qassem Soleimani? Did he save American lives by doing so or did he increase the risk of future attacks?
The inevitable escalation will be fought in the streets and fields of the Middle East, and perhaps even closer to home. This is not, however, a war that can be won with traditional weapons alone. The spin and narrative of both sides are, and always will be, the most powerful tools in this sad conflict.
Read more from Mark Angelides.