One day they may name a street after President Donald Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East: Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Think of the miscalculations this guy made. In 2015, the U.S. and the major European powers agreed to lift virtually all their sanctions on Iran, many dating back to 1979, in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program for a mere 15 years but still maintaining the right to have a peaceful nuclear program. It was a great deal for Iran. Its economy grew by over 12% the next year. And what did Soleimani do with that windfall?
He and Iran’s supreme leader launched an aggressive regional imperial project that made Iran and its proxies the de facto controlling power in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. This freaked out U.S. allies in the Sunni Arab world and Israel, and they prevailed on the Trump administration to respond by tearing up the nuclear deal and imposing oil sanctions on Iran that have now shrunk the Iranian economy by almost 10% and sent unemployment to over 16%.
All that for the pleasure of saying that Tehran can call the shots in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. What exactly was second prize?
By severely depriving the Tehran regime of funds, the ayatollahs had to raise gasoline prices at home, triggering massive domestic protests. That required a harsh crackdown by Iran’s clerics against their own people that left thousands jailed and killed, further weakening the legitimacy of the regime.
Then Mr. “Military Genius” Soleimani decided that, having propped up the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria and helping to kill 500,000 Syrians in the process, he would overreach again and try to put direct pressure on Israel. He would do this by trying to transfer precision-guided rockets from Iran to Iranian proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria.
Alas, Soleimani discovered that fighting Israel — specifically, its combined air force, special forces, intelligence and cyber — is not like fighting the Nusra front or the Islamic State group. The Israelis hit back hard, sending a whole bunch of Iranians home from Syria in caskets and hammering their proxies as far away as Western Iraq.
Indeed, Israeli intelligence had so penetrated Soleimani’s Quds Force and its proxies that Soleimani would land a plane with precision munitions in Syria at 5 p.m., and the Israeli air force would blow it up by 5:30 p.m. Soleimani’s men were like fish in a barrel. If Iran had a free press and a real parliament, he would have been fired for colossal mismanagement.
But it gets better, or actually worse, for Soleimani. Many of his obituaries say that he led the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq, in tacit alliance with America. Well, that’s true. But what they omit is that Soleimani’s, and Iran’s, overreaching in Iraq helped to produce the Islamic State group in the first place.
It was Soleimani and his Quds Force pals who pushed Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to push Sunnis out of the Iraqi government and army, stop paying salaries to Sunni soldiers, kill and arrest large numbers of peaceful Sunni protesters and generally turn Iraq into a Shiite-dominated sectarian state. The Islamic State group was the counterreaction.
Finally, it was Soleimani’s project of making Iran the imperial power in the Middle East that turned Iran into the most hated power in the Middle East for many of the young, rising pro-democracy forces — both Sunnis and Shiites — in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
As Iranian American scholar Ray Takeyh pointed out in a wise essay in Politico, in recent years “Soleimani began expanding Iran’s imperial frontiers. For the first time in its history, Iran became a true regional power, stretching its influence from the banks of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Soleimani understood that Persians would not be willing to die in distant battlefields for the sake of Arabs, so he focused on recruiting Arabs and Afghans as an auxiliary force. He often boasted that he could create a militia in little time and deploy it against Iran’s various enemies.”
It was precisely those Soleimani proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen — that created pro-Iranian Shiite states-within-states in all of these countries. And it was precisely these states-within-states that helped to prevent any of these countries from cohering, fostered massive corruption and kept these countries from developing infrastructure — schools, roads, electricity.
And therefore it was Soleimani and his proxies — his “kingmakers” in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — who increasingly came to be seen, and hated, as imperial powers in the region, even more so than Trump’s America. This triggered popular, authentic, bottom-up democracy movements in Lebanon and Iraq that involved Sunnis and Shiites locking arms together to demand noncorrupt, nonsectarian democratic governance.
On Nov. 27, Iraqi Shiites — yes, Iraqi Shiites — burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq, removing the Iranian flag from the building and putting an Iraqi flag in its place. That was after Iraqi Shiites, in September 2018, set the Iranian consulate in Basra ablaze, shouting condemnations of Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics.
The whole “protest” against the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad last week was almost certainly a Soleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around. The protesters were paid pro-Iranian militiamen. No one in Baghdad was fooled by this.
In a way, it’s what got Soleimani killed. He so wanted to cover his failures in Iraq he decided to start provoking the Americans there by shelling their forces, hoping they would overreact, kill Iraqis and turn them against the United States. Trump, rather than taking the bait, killed Soleimani instead.
I have no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications. But here are two things I do know about the Middle East.
First, often in the Middle East the opposite of “bad” is not “good.” The opposite of bad often turns out to be “disorder.” Just because you take out a really bad actor like Soleimani doesn’t mean a good actor, or a good change in policy, comes in his wake. Soleimani is part of a system called the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That revolution has managed to use oil money and violence to stay in power since 1979 — and that is Iran’s tragedy, a tragedy that the death of one Iranian general will not change.
Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilization and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers — except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders. The very fact that Soleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime and how it has wasted the lives of two generations of Iranians by looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.
The other thing I know is that in the Middle East all important politics happens the morning after the morning after.
Yes, there will be noisy protests in Iran, the burning of American flags and much crying for the “martyr.” The morning after the morning after? There will be a thousand quiet conversations inside Iran that won’t get reported. They will be about the travesty that is their own government and how it has squandered so much of Iran’s wealth and talent on an imperial project that has made Iran hated in the Middle East.
And, yes, America’s Sunni Arab allies will quietly celebrate Soleimani’s death, but we must never forget that it is the dysfunction of many of the Sunni Arab regimes — their lack of freedom, modern education and women’s empowerment — that made them so weak that Iran was able to take them over from the inside with its proxies.
I write these lines while flying over New Zealand, where the smoke from forest fires 2,500 miles away over eastern Australia can be seen and felt. Mother Nature doesn’t know Soleimani’s name, but everyone in the Arab world is going to know her name. Because the Middle East, particularly Iran, is becoming an environmental disaster area — running out of water, with rising desertification and overpopulation. If governments there don’t stop fighting and come together to build resilience against climate change — rather than celebrating self-promoting military frauds who conquer failed states and make them fail even more — they’re all doomed.