On Jan. 3, we woke to news that a U.S. drone strike had killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
He commanded Iran’s most elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, and was in charge of virtually all Iran-sponsored foreign military terrorist operations, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq.
Retired U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded American forces during the war in Iraq, once called Suleimani “our most significant and evil adversary in the greater Middle East.”
The United States has been engaged in a world war on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001. Gen. Suleimani was the most senior terrorist leader in the world and therefore a valid target.
One’s initial reaction to the news of his death might simply be, “Oh my, now there will be a revenge attack on the U.S. mainland and/or against military or civilians stationed overseas.”
While that may be true, a simple knee-jerk reaction hardly explains the larger issue and justification for taking him out at this point in time.
To put the Suleimani incident in perspective, it may be helpful to go back in time and review Middle East policy in general, and Iran in particular since 9/11.
President Bush’s policy/strategy in the Middle East post-9/11: After building a justification for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s strategy evolved into one of nation building. That is, if we could successfully establish two valid and enduring democracies, Iraq to a greater extent and Afghanistan to a lesser extent, they could be the catalyst to transform the Middle East.
Unfortunately, we discovered — after spending trillions of dollars and many American lives — that the Middle East is not up to the task. It is so deeply entrenched in authoritarian rule that its people cannot conceive the concept of freedom as we know it.
On Sept. 27, 2013, President Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, marking the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Iran since 1979. What evolved from that was a strategy toward Iran of, for lack of a better word, appeasement. It was essentially a reset of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It was also blind to the Iranian goal of dominance in the Middle East.
What followed was two years of hard work by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry at the negotiating table with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was sealed in July 2015. Part of the deal was to offer Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to curb its nuclear program. The agreement was aimed at ensuring that “Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.”
Meanwhile, throughout the two years of negotiations, on any given Friday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be viewed repeating his weekly message, “death to Americana and destruction of Israel.”
During negotiations, Obama/Biden/Kerry gave observers the impression that they would do anything to consummate the agreement. When completed, many believed it was not worth the paper it was written on and, in fact, it gave Iran the green light to continue its drive toward Middle East domination and development of nuclear weapons and long-range delivery missiles.
In May 2018, President Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and since has strangled them with economic sanctions. Interestingly, since the pullout, Iran admitted to advances in its nuclear weapon development.
The Trump foreign policy/Middle East strategy can be summed up as follows: “America First.” We will rebuild our economy and our military while imposing harshest possible economic sanctions against those who wish to do us harm.
On New Year’s Eve, an Iranian-backed terrorist organization in Iraq attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Dozens of terrorists breaching the compound did so in support of Kataeb Hezbollah, which the State Department has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
Gen. Suleimani had led Iran foreign policy toward the U.S. through an 18-month lead-up to the U.S. Embassy attack. He flew into Baghdad to become personally involved with the Kataeb Hezbollah terrorist operations, thereby presenting himself as a perfect target of opportunity.
The Trump doctrine does not seek a land war with Iran. But three loud and clear messages have been sent to the Iranian leadership. One, when we identify a “red line” we do not cross it. The second is an implied message that the next air strike could take out your entire oil refining capability, which is your last and only source of revenue. Finally, the take-down of Suleimani says it all: We know where you are, and you might be next.
Marvin L. Covault is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general.