Four days ago, on January 3, 2020, the US military killed Major General Qasem Soleimani in an air strike at the Baghdad International Airport. The head of Iran’s Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani was considered the country’s most important military leader.
Today, January 7, 2020, Iran responded by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq where U.S. military personnel were stationed. The United States and Iran seem as close as ever to full-scale military conflict.
How did we get here and why? And what’s to be done about it?
President Trump directly authorized the assassination of Soleimani, that much is clear. Why and for what purpose is still a muddle. The neoconservatives that have moved in and out of the Trump administration have been pushing for “regime change” in Iran for years, if not decades. Yet the recent departure of John Bolton as National Security Advisor suggests their influence remains limited. For his part, Trump has repeatedly said that he wants to end “endless wars” and bring the troops home. But the actual reduction of US forces abroad has been moot.
As with so much else in the Trump presidency, it appears that television ultimately played a decisive role. Images of Iraqi protesters storming the US embassy in Baghdad reportedly pushed Trump to authorize the strike on Soleimani. Transfixed by the movement of two-dimensional figures on his flat-panel display, Trump chose to assume his role as commander-in-chief.
According to the New York Times, Pentagon officials were “stunned” by Trump’s decision. Killing Soleimani was one option among many, presented to Trump only to make the other options appear more reasonable. This strategy might have succeeded with a president who was themselves reasonable. Instead, it massively backfired.
The administration’s official justifications for the killing have not added any clarity to the situation. General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that the Trump administration received “clear and unambiguous” intelligence that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on Americans that could come in “days, weeks.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the attack “could have killed dozens or hundreds of Americans.”
The actual details of this “clear and unambiguous” intelligence have not been made public, likely because they don’t exist. In the above New York Times article, an unnamed official describes the intelligence as “a normal Monday in the Middle East.” And as Eric Levitz writes in New York Magazine, “to state what should be obvious, an attack can either be weeks away from execution, or it can be imminent, but it cannot be both.”
The actual scenario seems to have been that Trump was angered by images of Iraqi’s attacking the US embassy in Baghdad, he responded with the most extreme, violent option available, and then officials in his administration lied about it to the public, as they so often do.
There is precedent here. The George W. Bush administration similarly launched an unjust, illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on clear lies. The human cost of that invasion is somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. But even though the Bush administration’s justification for war was proven to be untrue, not one person—whether the US officials involved or the desktop warriors who cheered them on—has been held to account.
Given this recent history, it should come as no surprise that the Trump administration can barely be bothered to concoct a justification for killing Soleimani. They’ve offered no convincing reason for violating the sovereignty of one country to kill a top military official from another. But there will likely be no consequences for this action, so who can blame them?
Of course, even those who’ve condemned Trump’s decision have been quick to emphasize that Soleimani was a bad guy, directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, had American blood on his hands, etc. Ryan Cooper, writing for The Week, made short work of these mealy-mouthed assertions.
The claims reflect neither righteous indignation nor careful analysis, but rather a reflexive orientalism (not to mention nationalism) adopted by pundits and politicians alike.
We might ask whether a Manichean vision of good and evil is even useful for understanding geopolitics? The simple answer is no. State managers around the world deploy coercion, violent and otherwise, to achieve foreign policy goals. We can and should condemn those acts, and even the character of those officials, whenever possible.
But condemning Soleimani for the harm he was directly or indirectly involved in doesn’t help us understand the recent conflict between the United States and Iran. Considering, for example, that Soleimani was loosely partnered with the United States in battling the Islamic State, we should resist any easy explanations about bad actors and ethical judgment.
A better approach would be to place the recent events in historical context, a context that reveals the United States to be the aggressor, time and time again.
We could begin roughly five decades ago when the United States helped overthrow Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Over four days in August 1953, the CIA partnered with British intelligence to remove Mossadegh from power and re-install the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The result was twenty-five years of autocratic rule, underwritten by a regime of torture. Moreover, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis were directly influenced by those earlier events.
We could begin around thirty years ago when the United States supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The war resulted in as many as 500,000 Iranian casualties, and under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians. Toward the end of the war, in July 1988, a US naval cruiser in the Persian Gulf shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. On the campaign trail, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush said of the incident, “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.” Notably, Soleimani began his military career in this conflict.
We could begin less than two years ago when the United States, under the Trump administration, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal without any serious justification. Even though Iran was following the terms of the deal, which was designed to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the Trump administration simply chose to repudiate a signal achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency. Subsequently, the Trump administration placed a series of crippling sanctions on Iran, even though it was the United States who upended the agreement.
Whenever we begin, the picture is clear: The latest US-Iranian skirmishes build on a decades-long pattern of aggressive, coercive behavior on the part of the United States. In effect, the United States has already been at war with Iran since at least 2018. The latest incidents represent only a violent escalation.
Along with the death and destruction that has already occurred, another important consequence of the recent events will likely be the neutralizing of protest movements in both Iraq and Iran. The killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil, and the nationalist sentiments it has already inflamed, may undermine the efforts of ordinary people, lend strength to the state apparatus, and further entrench corrupt elites.
Whereas ordinary people in the United States should be building bridges with their counterparts in Iraq and Iran in a shared struggle for a better future, escalating conflict between the United States and Iran is likely to drive them further apart. Following the strike against Soleimani last Friday, the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced that they were “monitoring” events and encouraged residents to “to say something if you see something.”
Southern California is home to one of the largest populations of Iranians outside the country itself. The implication of the LAPD’s message should be clear. The outer war on Iran will be accompanied by an inner war on Iranians in the United States.
Given all this, there can be only one position on US action toward Iran. In The Outline, Shuja Haider put it succinctly:
It is not difficult to figure out how to respond to this. Those who oppose the march to war, and what is fairly described as American imperialism, should be against it. That’s all.
Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani was an unjust, illegal, repugnant act, made without authorization from Congress, let alone the consent of the American public. That Iran retaliated was inevitable. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But the only defensible position is to oppose escalation and war, without qualifications or reservations.
The United States has roughly 800 military installations around the world, an “archipelago of bases” ready to deploy spectacular violence against anyone, anywhere, anytime. And when you divide the world into “areas of responsibility,” enemies appear everywhere.
The simple fact is that for US elites, and many Americans as well, the lives of people beyond the nation’s borders are expendable. And while the troops never come home, their military hardware does: repurposed by local police forces to control those within the nation’s borders whose lives are equally expendable.
For people of good conscience, the only option is to oppose US militarism and imperialism with all available means. How to do so is less than clear. Millions marched against the US invasion of Iraq and yet the war went on. The task for ordinary people is to develop the capacity to disrupt the US war machine on the way to dismantling it. A clarity of purpose might not supply the answers, but it might light a path through the darkness.
No War on Iran. US out of Iraq. End US imperialism.