The assassination Friday of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top security and intelligence commander in the Iranian military, raises significant questions, including whether the killing will achieve a discernible U.S. goal, and — even more troubling — whether it will push the U.S. and Iran closer to war.
President Trump, in his fashion, took a victory lap, tweeting that Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago,” the kind of bombast we’ve come to expect from this president. It’s also the kind of bombast that is more likely to make things worse than better.
To be clear, Soleimani — who was killed in a drone strike as he left the Baghdad airport — was a key architect in Iran’s destabilizing policies in the Middle East, and a force behind militias and terror groups that have killed and maimed countless civilians and soldiers, including U.S. troops and contractors.
But as leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he also was a general and an establishment figure in a foreign government, and targeting him for a rocket strike differs in scale and significance from assassinating the leader of a stateless terror group, such as former al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of Islamic State. Killing Soleimani is a direct attack on the power and command structure of a sovereign state.
Whether Soleimani’s killing will lead to a military confrontation with Iran is unknowable. Since the imposition of strict sanctions after Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the economy of the Islamic Republic has withered, and it has faced serious protests at home. It may not be in a position to undertake a robust response, although it has proven time and again that it is able and willing to mount or support attacks through proxies.
Skirting debate over whether there was legal authority for the killing, Americans deserve several explanations. Why did Trump authorize the hit now, when previous administrations had refrained from killing Soleimani for fear that the repercussions from Iran could far exceed the possible benefits? What evidence did the government have that Soleimani was involved in planning an “imminent” attack, as Defense Secretary Michael R. Pompeo described it, that required an assassination to stop? How does such an escalation of hostilities square with Trump’s supposed eagerness to avoid “endless wars” in faraway countries?
Further, do U.S. military and national security leaders have plans in place for countering whatever response Iran might unleash — has the administration gamed this out sufficiently? Or was this, like many of Trump’s decisions, a reckless, last-minute move against the advice of wiser advisers? How does killing one of the nation’s top military figures dissuade the regime in Tehran from pressing forward with its nuclear ambitions?
Questions, lots of questions. The president needs to address them, and quickly. This is dangerous territory, and it would be nice to feel assured that he has thought through the ramifications. If he has.