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Demonstrators gather over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, near the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 3, 2020.
K.M. Chaudary/AP

9 big questions about Qassem Soleimani’s killing, answered by an expert

Are we at war with Iran? And other pressing questions after the US’s airstrike against a top Iranian general.

The United States killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of the Islamic Republic’s paramilitary apparatus, in an airstrike in Baghdad on Thursday night.

Nobody, not even the experts, can be sure what happens next.

“Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction,” Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told me by phone on Friday.

Killing Soleimani was a dramatic escalation — no less than “an act of war,” in Maloney’s words — in the simmering tensions between the US and Iran, tensions that have escalated throughout Trump’s presidency.

Shortly after his election, Trump announced his intentions to pull out of the nuclear deal forged by President Barack Obama; he later followed through and placed crippling sanctions on Iran. Iran has responded with a series of provocative acts, from attacking container ships in the Persian Gulf to drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities. Through its proxy militias, it has also struck directly at American assets, last week killing a US contractor near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which in turn lead to US strikes on Iranian militias and then violent protests at the US embassy in Baghdad led by those Iranian-backed militias.

Now Soleimani has been killed in a country — Iraq — where Iran wields immense influence.

Mourners gather during a demonstration over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, on January 3, 2020.
Vahid Salemi/AP

Despite all this, Maloney said she doesn’t expect all-out war: Iran knows it would lose, she said. Instead, more targeted reprisals are likely, attacks in other countries that are supposed to be American allies where American troops are stationed. She said she does think Trump seems reluctant to ensnare the United States in another major conflict in the region.

But Soleimani’s death is still potentially a game-changer — for America, for Iran, for Iraq, and for the rest of the Middle East, Maloney explains. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Dylan Scott

Who was Qassem Soleimani and why was he important?

Suzanne Maloney

Soleimani was commander of Iran’s Quds Force, which is the overseas or foreign expeditionary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most significant and important branch of the Iranian military forces. It was established after the [Iranian] revolution.

Soleimani led the campaign that Iran has waged across the broader Middle East. Most notably, the counter-ISIS ground campaign, as well as the recruitment of essentially a transnational-Shia force to help bolster Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power and defeat his opposition in the civil war in Syria.

He has been a significant military leader in Iran since the revolution, but it’s also important not to overstate his centrality in terms of the institutional setting within Iran. He is probably the second-most important official in Iran, but there’s a pretty deep bench of Iranian military commanders and they have already named a replacement for him.

Dylan Scott

What do we know about what happened last night?

Suzanne Maloney

From what I’ve seen of the news, and of course I don’t have access to direct information from the US government other than what has been stated, there were airstrikes on a convoy that killed both Soleimani and a key Iranian-backed militia leader, essentially Iran’s primary partner who held an important position within the Iraqi security bureaucracy. There also appears to have been the capture of two prominent Iraqi militia leaders aligned with Iran.

This is something of a game-changer of Iraq itself, potentially in ways both destabilizing but potentially quite positive if we were positioned to take advantage of it or if Iraqi civilian authorities were positioned to take advantage of it. But this is something essentially unprecedented simply because of the significance of Soleimani and the direct and public attribution by American senior officials of our responsibility for the attack.

Dylan Scott

Why do you say this could be a game-changer internally for Iraq? What has Iran been doing in Iraq that this could potentially disrupt?

Suzanne Maloney

Obviously, the US has had a significant presence in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein, the American invasion, and occupation of Iraq. But Iran was in many ways better positioned than the United States to take advantage of the power vacuum that emerged with Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. They already had longstanding ties with Iraqi armed opposition groups that had been cultivated by the Islamic Republic over the course of their own long estrangement and antagonism with Saddam Hussein.

So as soon as the Baath Party and the existing power structure was removed by the American invasion, the Iranians moved in partnership with their Iraqis proxies and clients and have steadily become the major security, economic, and political force in Iraq.

And Qassem Soleimani was in many ways the primary vector of that influence.

Dylan Scott

That leads to my next question: Why would the United States want Soleimani dead?

Suzanne Maloney

Soleimani’s role in essentially waging wars across the Middle East that has destabilized and contributed to the deaths of thousands earned the Revolutionary Guard a place on the US’s terrorism list. Soleimani himself has long been designated as a terrorist. He has been the foremost adversary for American efforts to try to promote stability, to try to ensure independent government rather than puppet government or other powers.

Dylan Scott

I think for a lot of people, this came out of nowhere. Did something happen recently that spurred the US to act? Why is this happening now?

Suzanne Maloney

It comes in a context of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran that emerged with the advent of the Trump administration. The Trump administration in May of 2018 walked away from the nuclear deal that had been negotiated by the Obama administration in partnership with five other world powers and the European Union. With that decision to jettison the nuclear deal, President Trump began ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran.

The Iranians have responded by striking out against American interests, against American allies and partners in the region over the last six months. Some of those reprisals had taken place in Iraq with missile strikes on American military and economic presence, as well as diplomatic facilities in Iraq. There has been an ongoing tit-for-tat between US forces striking at Iranian proxies in Iraq just this week.

So this was a really drastic escalation of what has been a simmering shadow war between the United States and Iran.

Dylan Scott

There’s been a lot of casual speculation that this was politically motivated on Trump’s part. Is there any reason to think that’s true? Or was there a legitimate military objective here?

Suzanne Maloney

I’ll leave the legitimacy to others, particularly those who can speak to the laws of warfare.

But I’m very dubious that the Trump administration is interested in provoking a direct military conflict with Iran. Senior officials within the Trump administration subscribe to a theory of the case with respect to how to manage the challenges posed by Iran. Which essentially holds that if you hit Iran hard enough, they will retreat.

So the presumption all along has been that engagement only empowered Iran during the Obama administration, and what President Trump has been seeking to do is to deter Iran, to force either a significant capitulation on a range of different regional nuclear and domestic policies or potentially to help catalyze some kind of internal change within the Iranian system that would lead to a more responsible government.

I think that’s the calculation. I am persuaded that Trump has a keen enough political instinct that he is seeking in fact to avoid a new significant military engagement in the Middle East because it’s simply so unpopular with the American people. It’s something he has been consistent on, complaining about the cost, both financial and human. I think he’s quite prepared to turn up the heat and let our allies in the region bear the consequences.

Dylan Scott

Setting the politics aside, to state the obvious, it seems like a huge risk to assassinate or whatever word you want to use one of another country’s top leaders. This isn’t the normal course of business, right? It doesn’t even seem comparable to taking al-Baghdadi or bin Laden, non-state actors who are labeled as terrorists. This feels different. What risks come with taking this action?

Suzanne Maloney

It can’t be described as anything other than an act of war against a sovereign state. The risks that come with it are Iranian reprisals, particularly the risk that this will pose for preserving any kind of coherent American presence in Iraq, continuing the US’s critical role in the counter-ISIS campaign, and the likelihood Iran will look for opportunities to strike out in a much more violent way or much more costly way against US interests across the region.

I think we can also anticipate inevitably a further intensification of Iran’s efforts to walk away from its own obligations under the nuclear deal, which could put us quickly back into a crisis in which Iran is racing toward a bomb and we are now even more diplomatically isolated than ever before, because of an action that is unlikely to be welcomed by either our longstanding allies who were parties to the deal or other world powers, such as China and Russia, who will look at this as a very disturbing precedent.

Dylan Scott

There’s been a lot of talk about Iran retaliating. What would that look like?

Suzanne Maloney

I am perhaps something of an exception to some of the hysterical predictions I’m seeing on social media and elsewhere. I think the Iranians are going to be judicious, at least in the near term. They’re going to take the opportunity to try to solidify their own base at home, which has been under real strain from internal protests over the course of the past several months that led to an almost unprecedented internal crackdown. They’re using this to stoke nationalism and to try to make sure they’ve consolidated their position at home.

I also think Iran has a long experience of trying to hit back at the United States and will look for the time and place of its own choosing in terms of a response. The most obvious scenarios are further actions in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, all arenas where Iran has significant presence and arguably a decisive advantage over American military presence. We’ve seen a pattern of fairly small calibrated strikes on energy infrastructure in the region. Those may escalate or expand to potentially more costly actions by the Iranians.

And, as I said, I think we’re going to see an intensification of Iran’s own nuclear activities in contravention of the nuclear deal. That agreement is likely to completely collapse in the aftermath of this strike.

Dylan Scott

So what happens in Iran now internally? How does new leadership coming in change things, both for the country itself but also in terms of its relationship to the United States and its neighbors?

Suzanne Maloney

I don’t see this in the near term as having a significant impact on the balance of power within the Islamic Republic. The replacement for Soleimani, who’s already been named, is someone with a long history. He’s going to be able to fill Soleimani’s shoes. He won’t have the same charisma or reputation or iconic stature, but he will have similarly long experience and working relationships with all of the key actors internally and around the region.

There is some degree of uncertainty that Iran is facing now. I don’t see the Iranians eager to engage in a direct military conflict with Washington that they know they would lose, and that would ultimately result in the end of their own regime.

To date, their advantage has been that they’re willing to press the Trump administration in ways that risk that kind of a conflict, something I think Trump wants to avoid in an election year. Now the Americans have seized the escalation advantage and this is why I think we’re gonna see some degree of caution, at least in the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s death, from Tehran.

It’s also important to realize these protests that happened in November have really shaken the power structure in terms of what the future looks like for this regime. There was a poll published just yesterday on a pro-government website in Iran that suggested 56 percent of residents polled in Tehran expect the protests to continue, 66 percent aren’t going to vote in next month’s parliamentary elections, and 81 percent are dissatisfied with conditions inside Iran. Those are not the kind of numbers you want if you’re going to precipitate a bilateral conflict with a superpower.

I think this is a moment of reckoning for the Islamic Republic, and anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.

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