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Part of you wants to rejoice. One of the most infuriating aspects of international relations, as conducted according to the traditional rules, is that the true architects of horror and despair so often operate under the personal impunity national leaders grant to each other, while they send their subjects into the field to slaughter on their behalf. Adherence to this convention allows nations to confront each other, even in war, without the conflicts degenerating into trans-national free-for-alls of targeted assassinations, which is generally thought to be the only sensible way to go about the never-ending Clauswitzian continuation of politics by other means; but it all starts to look a little murky when the main difference between Osama Bin Laden, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and the just murdered Qassem Soleimani, is that Iran has a seat in the United Nations, and Al Qaeda and ISIS did not. Yesterday, the US decided that this wasn’t a big enough difference to change the outcome, and a previously immune guilty party got his. That killing Soleimani was a bold and risky escalation in the ongoing brush-fire war between America and Iran in the Middle East can’t be disputed. It may also, and I confess I haven’t dug into this, have been contrary to international law (and perhaps even US law). But was it wrong? By what sensible criteria? Was it even the wrong move from an amoral geopolitical perspective? It’s almost impossible to approach the question with any degree of moral or intellectual certainty.

Back up a second, though – who was this guy Qassem Soleimani, and why did Trump just order his assassination? It’s hard to keep up, isn’t it? He was never a famous figure in our society, and his name was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media, yet in many ways he was the most important figure working in opposition to American and general western interests throughout the Middle East, and a nemesis to both Israel and the United States. He was the leader of the Islamic Republic Guard Corps Quds Force, a hard core army within an army that serves as Iran’s foreign expeditionary arm, which might be described as a malevolent cross between Al Qaeda, the French Foreign Legion, and the Waffen SS. Over the past couple of decades, the Quds Force, under Soleimani’s direct and granular supervision, has everywhere sown chaos and disruption, in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

The preferred mode of operation has been to organize, arm, and otherwise support local militias, who can then fight proxy wars against Iran’s geopolitical rivals, and prop up regimes and rebel insurgencies that Iran chooses to support. The current incarnation of Lebanon’s infamous Hezbollah is the most prominent of his creations, but Soleimani’s proxies, too numerous and potentially confusing to name, are also fighting the Saudis in Yemen, supporting Assad’s endless war against his many opponents in Syria, and operating in Iraq, adding muscle to the process by which Iran vies with America for influence in that country. Everywhere you look across the region, it seems, his dark influence creates violent pressure against America’s interests and traditional allies. Back in the dark days when US soldiers were dying by the hundred in IED attacks, that was Soleimani’s militias planting the roadside bombs, using a special armour-piercing, shaped-charge munition manufactured in Iran. When Israel’s anti-missile defences are forced to engage incoming rockets, that too is indirectly the work of Soleimani. When Houthi rebels fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, or launch naval cruise missiles out of their Yemeni strongholds at Saudi and US warships, that’s him again, and his guiding hand was discernible in the recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s most crucial oil production facilities, an act of war that prompted a surprisingly muted response.

It was Soleimani’s grand scheme, now close to reaching fruition, to create a “land bridge” from Iran that stretches through Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, a friendly corridor over which he could flow all manner of logistical support to his forces operating throughout the theatre. Israel routinely strikes at his convoys, which have still managed to transport a terrifying arsenal of missiles into Lebanon, where Hezbollah periodically rains them down on Israeli towns and cities. For years now, Israel has also been running airstrikes into Syria to strike at Quds Force assets and the militias they support, in one of those grinding, interminable attrition campaigns that are often carried out in the Middle East with little attention being paid to them over here. In a sense then, Israel and Iran are already at war, if one conducted at a remove. This situation created the risk of a broader conflagration long before the change of US policy under Trump, and was a primary factor in the Netanyahu government’s fierce opposition to Obama’s attempt at a sort of detente with the Islamic Republic. From the neither unreasonable nor unsubstantiated Israeli perspective, Soleimani’s endgame could only be the destruction of the Jewish State, and one achieves nothing by bargaining with such existential threats.

Curiously, in the way of such things in this part of the world, Soleimani’s relentless prosecution of Iran’s objectives put him on the same side as America when it came to ISIS, who, as Sunnis, were hated enemies of his Shia state, and had to be defeated in Syria to preserve the Assad regime. One reason the ISIS Caliphate was eradicated everywhere throughout Syria and Iraq is that Soleimani’s Shia militias wanted it gone just as badly as the Kurds and their American sponsors. The murdering bastards were getting it from all sides.

So how should we have viewed this man? As a high-ranking officer and political figure of a sovereign nation, promoting his nation’s interests just like everybody else does in the Middle East? Or as an even more powerful and determined Osama bin Laden, operating under the colour of right provided by his government, itself a rogue actor? General or terrorist? US policy has been to label the Quds Force a terrorist organization, and thus, whatever his official trappings, Soleimani was by our lights a terrorist, but in this bloody game one man’s pirate is another man’s privateer, and from the Iranian perspective Soleimani was no more a criminal than the Commandant of the US Marine Corps. We may not agree, not by a damn sight, but seeing it that way is why Iran’s leadership is bound to view the assassination as a step up the escalation ladder.

He was certainly, from any perspective, a ruthless foe and a very painful thorn in America’s side, and Israel’s too. The hard line argument for abandoning Obama’s multi-national nuclear deal with Iran, a pact despised as fervently by the right wing in the US as by Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel, was that the arrangement did absolutely nothing to curb Soleimani’s bad behaviour in the region, which was certainly true. The riposte, of course, was that Iran’s larger regional objectives were never on the table to begin with, and that tearing up the deal and reimposing severe economic sanctions wouldn’t, contrary to the right’s assertions, do anything to rein in the Quds Force either, and could result in all manner of Iranian retaliation within an ongoing confrontation with a country that might now also arm itself with nuclear weapons. The problem, as so often with these sorts of complex geopolitical dilemmas, is that both sides had a point. At the end of the day, the conclusion within the Obama administration was that some form of containment short of all out war was the only prudent answer, and that in any case it was better to approach the problem without also dealing in the near term with an Iranian nuclear arsenal. As is almost always the case in international relations involving hostile foreign powers, all the policy options were bad; the trick was to pick the one that was least awful (see also: North Korea).

The situation was quite similar in the aftermath of the Gulf War, back in the 1990s. Saddam had been defeated, his forces routed and pushed back out of Kuwait, yet his regime survived, leading to many years of messy and intermittently violent containment, and a situation short of war but far removed from peace. Remember the no-fly zones, and the repeated air strikes against Iraqi anti-aircraft assets as US aircraft patrolled them? Remember the attacks upon what looked to be chemical warfare facilities, as Saddam toyed anew with weapons of mass destruction? Remember the sanctions, which caused mass privation while seeming to leave Saddam wholly unperturbed? It was, in all, a highly unsatisfactory mess, but as Bill Clinton saw it perhaps the best of a uniformly miserable set of options. The hard liners disagreed, and decided to lance the boil once and for all just as soon as they could after Bush the Younger gained power, and, well, look where that got us.

I fear we may be travelling down a similar road now. Once the nuclear deal was unilaterally abrogated, and sanctions reimposed, Iran had no appetite for coming back to the table to negotiate an agreement more to the American right’s liking. Instead, as I was by no means the only one to predict, they began looking for ways to ratchet up countervailing pressure on America, attacking oil tankers, shooting down drones, and, in an almost breathtaking display of audacity, striking via their proxy militias at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil economy. There was a sad inevitability to all this, as there was to the use of those same proxy militias, in a move that again I was by no means the only one to predict, to attack American personnel on the ground. Having taken that step last week, killing an American contractor and wounding many other military personnel in a rocket attack on a US base near Kirkuk, the US retaliated, targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah, the responsible Iranian proxy militia, at three sites within Iraq and two in Syria. This was a fairly massive and damaging set of strikes. This led in turn to the siege of the American “Green Zone” in Baghdad, where the US embassy is located, by a mob of pro-Iranian protesters who were obviously under the direction of, and no doubt reinforced by, Kata’ib Hezbollah, working under the umbrella of an ostensibly Iraqi governmental organization known as the Popular Mobilization Committee, which oversees the operations of Iran’s numerous militias (the Popular Mobilization Forces) located in Iraq – I know, it’s all so god-awfully byzantine and confusing – the whole affair, as ever, under the watchful eye of their Quds Force sponsors, and therefor Soleimani.

That siege was lifted after a few days by order of the Popular Mobilization Forces, thus preventing it from getting totally out of hand, but Trump and his advisors have obviously concluded that Iran’s ongoing provocations have become intolerable, and this led to the strike on Qasem Soleimani himself. The Quds Force commander had made himself a particularly juicy target by travelling in a convoy near the Baghdad Airport that also included Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah, now also dead. Soleinmani was used to travelling throughout the region in this rather brazenly open way, his safety guaranteed under the traditional rules of international relations. He was a high ranking official of a sovereign state, was he not? The Americans decided that no, he wasn’t, not really. He was a terrorist mastermind and the architect of terrible mayhem all over the Middle East. Time, then, to lance the boil, once and for all.

There can be no tears shed for Soleimani, but “once and for all” has always proved an impossible fantasy in this festering cockpit of political, military, religious, and ethnic strife. There are any number of ways that Iran could now retaliate, and it’s hard to believe they won’t. Ordering attacks on Israel via Hezbollah could be one part of their response – Israel is part of this too, and over the past few weeks Israeli aircraft, including, we believe, their much-vaunted, brand new F-35 strike fighters, have also been hitting Kata’ib Hezbollah targets in Iraq, just as Israeli strikes have targeted the Quds Force and its militia clients all over Syria and Lebanon for years now. The Iranians could ramp up a new campaign to attack shipping in the Gulf, or even move to block the Strait of Hormuz, still perhaps the most important waterway on earth. The Saudis are in bed with the Americans, and their big fat juicy oil facilities are barely less vulnerable to attack now than they were a few weeks ago – that might inflict a desirable level of pain. The huge US airbase at Al Udeid in Qatar, the largest American facility in the Middle East, might also be seen as a worthy target, its flight line often packed with machines the cheapest of which cost something to the tune of 80 million dollars. US naval assets in the Gulf could also be assaulted – the Iranians might reckon that now is as good a time as any to put their oft-practised boat swarming tactics to the test. Heck, as long as we’re murdering each other’s officials, maybe it’s time for some retaliatory targeted assassinations. Really, there’s no end to the possibilities, which include attacks on US soil, and cyber-warfare, a mode of combat in which Iran excels to an extent not generally appreciated by the public.

Nobody could dispute that the nuclear deal with Iran left many issues unresolved, and failed to cure the larger problem of the violent pursuit of Iran’s ambitions throughout the Persian Gulf region and beyond. Those who advocate that the better alternative was to scrap the deal and return to a bitter twilight struggle of increasingly dire escalation must answer these questions: how is the situation now improved? And how does it get resolved to the satisfaction of the hard liners short of a huge and catastrophic war? Or is it thought better, supposing anybody really has the power to decide where the boulder will roll once it’s tipped down the hill, to simply play this bloody game of tit for tat into the indefinite, inconclusive future?

Preparing for the next move: as the Pentagon announces the deployment of 3,000 additional troops to Iraq, note the orange dot positioned just outside the Strait of Hormuz, labeled “CVN-75”. This is the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman and its battle group, its position recorded as at January 2.
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