Trump Declares War

Adam Shatz

Qasem Soleimani – a major-general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the leader of its Quds Force, a unit responsible for external and clandestine operations – was once described by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, as ‘a living martyr of the revolution’. The living martyr is now a dead martyr, killed in an American airstrike along with five other people at Baghdad airport. Khamenei, who promoted Soleimani posthumously to lieutenant-general, has tweeted that ‘harsh vengeance’ is forthcoming; Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Lebanese Hizbullah, has declared that it is the ‘responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide’ to avenge their deaths.

There is no doubt that Iran and its proxies have the capacity to respond. In large part thanks to Soleimani’s work over the past two decades, the Islamic Republic has carved out a zone of regional influence that is both wide and deep. Its networks are especially powerful in Iraq, where Americans have been ordered by their government to leave as soon as possible. It was recent clashes between the US and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq – the US killed two dozen members of Iraqi Hizbullah after an American contractor was killed near Kirkuk, and the US Embassy was stormed by militia sympathisers – that led to Soleimani’s assassination.

Soleimani, born in rural eastern Iran in 1957, was a member of the revolutionary generation and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, in which nearly a million Iranians died. His belief that Iran had to be strong – and Iraq weak and divided – was shaped by his wartime experiences; so was his hostility to the United States, which backed Saddam’s forces while they used poison gas against Iranian troops. His first task in the war was to supply water to soldiers: ‘I entered the war on a fifteen-day mission, and ended up staying until the end.’ He came to see the battlefield as ‘mankind’s lost paradise – the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest’, and demonstrated both ingenuity and ruthlessness in expanding Iranian influence throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan.

He acquired an abundance of enemies, many of whom are surely celebrating his violent end: Americans who fought in Iraq, where forces trained by Soleimani killed hundreds of US soldiers; the Israelis, who recognised him as a formidable asset to the Islamic Republic and Hizbullah; Syrian opponents of the Assad regime, which was saved by Soleimani’s intervention; the Saudis, who saw him as the fearsome architect of a ‘Shia crescent’ imperiling their interests in Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon; the militants of the Islamic State, who despise the Shia as heretics. There are many in Iran, too, who won’t miss him. A tireless defender of the Islamic Republic and unswerving ally of Khamenei, he made no secret of his conviction that state repression was an appropriate and necessary response to street protests; in 1999 he signed a letter from a group of Revolutionary Guard leaders to President Mohammed Khatami, telling him that if he did not crush a student revolt by force, they would.

Yet Soleimani could also be a pragmatist. He worked with the Americans in Afghanistan and was nearly as skilful at brokering ceasefires in Iraq as he was in organising military operations and collecting intelligence. His major objective was to increase Iranian influence and to bolster Shia power in the region; his success won no little respect among Iranians, even among those who dislike the Islamic Republic for its authoritarianism. He was also admired by many Shia in southern Lebanon, in spite of some (very quietly voiced) criticism over the scale of Lebanese Shia casualties in Syria.

He was a senior political leader as well as a general, which made him an untouchable figure for the Americans: until Trump came to power, killing him was understood to be off the table. Late in 2017, a Kuwaiti paper reported that the Israelis had received a green light to assassinate Soleimani, but hardly anyone took the rumour seriously. For all his recklessness in dismantling the nuclear agreement with Iran (one of Obama’s signature policies), and despite his rhetoric, Trump seemed averse to actual military escalation. Last September he fired John Bolton, a longstanding proponent of war with Iran, from his position as national security adviser. A few days later the United States did not respond to a drone attack against Saudi Aramco, which appeared to have been the work of Iran, and left Trump’s friends in Riyadh feeling dangerously exposed.

What, then, was the tipping point? The storming of the American embassy in Baghdad, only a few months after the Aramco attack, was clearly important: other than personal criticism – or the prospect of impeachment, from which the confrontation provides a useful distraction – nothing enrages Trump so much as spectacles of American weakness. A sense of pique may also have contributed to the assassination order. Soleimani seemed to take pleasure in taunting the Americans. ‘There is not one night we sleep without thinking of you,’ he said in July 2018 on Iranian television. ‘Mr Gambler Trump, we are near you where you don’t expect.’ Trump may have wished to prove to Soleimani that he was near him when he didn’t expect. And Khamenei’s remark, after the storming of the embassy in Baghdad, that ‘you can’t do anything,’ may have been the last straw.

It’s hard to explain Trump’s decision other than as a response to insult, since such a dangerous escalation seems inconsistent with his aversion to foreign wars, and his (so far) unerring sensitivity to his right-wing isolationist base. As Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group remarked on Twitter, killing Soleimani is for all intents and purposes a declaration of war against Iran. It is, of course, possible that Trump is unaware of this, or that he imagines that Iran ‘can’t do anything’ in response and will simply absorb the blow – in which case he is hallucinating.

By killing Soleimani, Trump has not only supplied the Islamic Republic with a powerful casus belli, he has also reinforced its longstanding narrative of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan, and may well help to strengthen the supreme leader’s hand at the very moment that the regime is facing popular anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and reeling from a series of revolts at home in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by security forces. Not for the first time, the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners. The man once known as the living martyr would be smiling.

This post was modified on 5 January. The earlier version repeated a report that Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Lebanese Hizbullah, might have been killed along with Soleimani. He was not.


  • 4 January 2020 at 1:32am
    name says:
    (Lebanese) Hezbollah has recently denied that their deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem was assassinated in this operation.

  • 5 January 2020 at 4:24am
    Joe Morison says:
    I remember an early Westwing in which Bartlett had to respond to an aggressive act by an (I think) unnamed Middle Eastern country. He was offered a list of options by his military chiefs: he was so angry that against advice he opted for the most serious alternative; the military guys were a bit freaked out after he stormed out but Leo, his Chief of Staff, told them that it was okay, that he’d come round to seeing sense - and, of course, he did.

    From the reports I’ve read, something similar happened at Mar-a-Lago, but Trump has got rid of the grown-ups who were there to keep him grounded. Apparently, there was great surprise at his choice but he was deaf to objections, convinced that his sanctions have weakened Iran to the point it won’t be able to retaliate; those who know, and it seems obviously true, say the attack will strengthen the regime’s moral grip on the country - who isn’t going to rally round in the face of an outside attack?

    For a long time, the idea of such an irresponsible narcissistic ignoramus in the White House has seemed hugely dangerous and now we’re seeing why: the nuclear treaty with Iran abandoned for no reason other than it was Obama’s, and now this incredibly reckless assassination. We may be heading for a truly hideous conflagration in the Middle East for no more reason than one man’s vanity and wounded pride.

  • 6 January 2020 at 1:12am
    neddy says:
    Trump is not hallucinating. He is aware of, and welcomes, the consequences. His main hope would have to be that Iran attacks US civilians; that will justify, to him and the American public, an enormous strike on Iran, with the help of Israel at the least. Iran removing the gloves with respect to uranium enrichment will alarm the entire globe and plays into Trump's hands. It was truly dumb of the Iranians to gloat that the USA can't do anything; it was truly stupid, and unbelievably arrogant, of Soleimani to expose himself to attack. The left laughs and sneers at Trump. Like Iran and Soleimani, more fool them.

  • 6 January 2020 at 9:47am
    Graucho says:
    One has to ask what the little Shiite was doing in Bagdad in the first place. Spreading peace on earth and goodwill to all men no doubt. As this is the LRB, I trust that fellow bibliophiles have not forgotten the Salman Rushdie affair. Bookstores were bombed, a publisher was almost murdered and a translator was murdered as a result of the doctrines of the theocratic regime in Iran. For all his faults Mr. Trump is a saint compared with that lot.

    • 9 January 2020 at 1:54pm
      Reader says: @ Graucho
      I agree with your assessment of Qassim. The question is not a moral one, however, but a pragmatic one. What will the effect be of killing him? The Iranian regime was looking distinctly shaky before the attack. The assassination was a godsend to their propaganda effort, and will cement them in place for another few years. I cannot think this is a good outcome if our aim is to get rid of the theocrats, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

  • 6 January 2020 at 10:16am
    mototom says:
    I've yet to meet an Iranian ignorant of the 1953 coup, arranged (to protect oil interests) by UK/US, which removed the democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadeq, replacing him with the Shah.

    The 1979 Iranian revolution was the result of that.

    When Blair consented to the war in Iraq he was ignorant of the 1953 coup (Jon Snow records a conversation he had with Blair in 2004 where he revealed he had never heard of Mossadeq). The result of that rush to arms was thousands of unnecessary deaths, the birth of ISIS and a strengthened Iran.

    Why are we lead by fools?

    • 7 January 2020 at 9:20am
      neddy says: @ mototom
      We are not led by fools, mototom. Whatever else they may be, Blair, Thatcher, Cameron, Johnson, May, Trump, Bush (the dead one and the half dead one), and all the others are not fools. Trump in particular is a canny if cynical, very clever, politician. Emphasis on politician. His pull back from attacking Iran after their downing of a US drone was very sharp. Iran mistook it for weakness, as did many on the left of politics. Trump simply waited until he had an outstanding target, an attack on which/whom would force Iran to retaliate. Remember Trump promised he would never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Now Iran has shouted that it will no longer limit its uranium enrichment activities; in other words, they will seek to build a bomb. Thank you, says Mr Trump. All he needs now is for the Mullahs to attack American personnel or assets to "justify" bombing Iranian nuclear production facilities and other sites - military or not. Reminding Americans of the 52 hostages taken by Iran decades ago, and for which it was never "punished", is excellent PR. Trump keeps himself in the spotlight; Mueller disappeared and so will the impeachment proceedings. So will the Democrats at this years Presidential election.

    • 8 January 2020 at 5:19am
      Joe Morison says: @ neddy
      You could not be more wrong, neddy, fools are exactly who we are led by; they may in some cases be intelligent, but they are all vainglorious fools convinced that they in their wisdom can make things better with missiles and bullets. They go from fools like Blair who wanted to be a saviour, to fools like Bush II who wanted to remake the world in his business friends’ image; but they are all fools because, intoxicated by their own power, they ignored the wiser heads who pointed out complexity and urged caution.

      At least the leaders you mention were either intelligent or listened to people who were, we are now led by a buffoon convinced he’s a genius. Fate help us all.

    • 9 January 2020 at 2:00pm
      Reader says: @ Joe Morison
      I don't think we are led by fools, but we are led by people whose aims are different from those of most of us. Their aim is to remain in power, come what may. This means that their actions, while perfectly rational given that aim, are not those which will ensure the best outcome for the rest of us.

      It seems to me that this resolves the apparent contradiction between their words, actions and the results. The problem, then, is to ensure that the people we put in positions of supreme power, are people who do not really want it. Plato clearly saw the dilemma two and a half millennia ago, but we seem no nearer solving it than the ancient Athenians.

  • 6 January 2020 at 6:57pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Obviously, in the heat of the present moment people (both anti- and pro-Trump people) are going to have irrational responses to Trump’s authorization of this assassination. First, Mr. Shatz’s analysis is good, but he slips into some dangerous “Stalinist” rhetoric with the line that “…the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners.” By the same token any American who is loudly critical of Putin/Putinism can be called “objectively Putinist” because this foreign criticism strengthens him domestically. Shades of all those in the 1930s and 40s who were anti-Stalin being branded as “objectively fascist” (which they weren’t—there was no bigger “objective fascist” during the life of the Russian-German pact of August 1939 than Stalin himself). There’s got to be a less tainted phrase than this one for describing the situation.

    Though they come to opposite conclusions and moral evaluations, Graucho and mototom want to go into the deep history of Iranian-Western relations that got us into the present mess, but, mototom, if you make (bad) unintended consequences a litmus test, you have to apply it to the Iranian side as well as to the American or British side. For instance, the 1979 revolution could have achieved its goals (however, the overthrowers of shah’s regime had diverse goals, and soon enough the theocrats had their former secular allies executed in great numbers) without seizing the US Embassy. They could have merely broken diplomatic relations and given the American community a week or two to get out of town. This would have vacated the obnoxious CIA presence too. Of course there would have been stay-behind agents (Iranians), but given the rigor of Iranian Revolutionary Guard measures, it’s doubtful they could have achieved much. Of course we’re led by fools, as are the Iranians.

    Unfortunately, powerful and influential people (the movers and shakers) in both countries have “teleological” or religious-fatalistic views of history. For those on the American right the US has some kind of divinely approved mission to spread its power, while on the Iranian side the Shite version of history ever since the 8th century CE requires divinely sanctioned messianism—and martyrdom—by the sword (almost 100 years ago Elias Canetti wrote about this in “Crowds and Power”). Often these groups have been disenfranchised, right now they’re not. Trump is too cynical to share these beliefs, but he sure knows how to take advantage of them to justify his actions and strengthen his hold on the right.

    Regardless of long-term “deeper causes” playing a role in all this, sensible people should be trying to avoid such flagrant provocations (Soleimani and Trump both being provocateurs, the former for ideological and political reasons, the latter for the sake of “look at me, what a marvelous creature I am.”) As with climate destruction, things will probably get much worse before they get better. A 2020 election loss by Trump might start to reverse the dire US Middle-Eastern policy in several respects, but whether Iran would be in a mood to reciprocate is unknowable at the present time. Given populist dissatisfactions around the globe, it doesn’t seem like “cooler heads will prevail”.

  • 7 January 2020 at 5:52pm
    Molloy says:
    An inspired puff piece in support of warmongering. Pity there's little mention of indictable war crimes committed against Iran.

  • 7 January 2020 at 5:55pm
    o senhor christopher says:
    Whoever wrote the headline to this piece, "Trump Declares War," should go back to school and try to discover what "declares war" means. It is not what Trump did, however misguided, mistaken, immoral, stupid, and dangerous it might have been. It is this kind of language, used more and more to attack Trump and his ilk that both legitimizes him and his ideas, and makes continued discussion of policy impossible.

  • 7 January 2020 at 7:17pm
    J stuart Williams says:
    All the above comments, as well as the article itself, skate round the elephant in the room which is the fact that the US is an aggressive colonial power in the middle east which should pack up and go home.

  • 7 January 2020 at 7:32pm
    kold says:
    Nobody comments on the illegality of this assassination. Is this because anglo-saxon politics is some sort of Hollywood melodrama?i Certain individuals just deserve to be bumped off?

  • 7 January 2020 at 7:59pm
    Colin Sutton says:
    Ordering assassination should be grounds for impeachment.

    • 9 January 2020 at 5:23am
      Alices Restaurant says: @ Colin Sutton
      Though it begins with the Brits and the their BP enterprise request, Eisenhower is your man--Mossadegh, 1953, CIA Gen. Cabell, future Bay of Pigs screwup whom Kennedy fired. Point being--need to stop hating Trump so much and remember your American history. And let's not for get the Kennedy brothers and their same. How soon we forget.

  • 7 January 2020 at 9:33pm
    wse9999 says:
    If Iran wasn’t already at war with the US then was a good approximation..
    Someone said it "puts the US back into Middle East mire." Yes, where it's been since 2003.
    And where Iran's been suiting itself for years.
    Thus it’s been a major cause of the Syrian refugee nightmare through proxies supporting their Shia man there.
    Plus its proxy in Lebanon contra Israel, and proxy in Yemen.
    One of these last year brazenly attacked Saudi oil facilities.
    And lately Iran has been openly cementing its direct influence in Shia Iraq, again including through proxy forces.
    It briefly “allied” with US etc against ISIS for sake of its Syrian and Iraq fiefdoms.
    But lately its Iraq proxies have turned on the US, and they definitely crossed a line in attacking the US embassy, signalling more to come.
    Meanwhile a rational Iran should think carefully how it responds.
    Its economy is being squeezed and it’s vastly outgunned.

  • 8 January 2020 at 2:33am
    lordarsenal says:
    America is a sick, unstable presence on the world stage. As a citizen of this most misbegotten country, I have lived through constant armed conflict since my birth in 1954. Overthrowing foreign governments, invading countries whenever the mood strikes us, and paralysing the American public with a permanent state of fear, I, for one don’t give a damn about yet another excuse to ‘kick ass’ in the middle east. Imagine that?! Not giving a damn. Try it. You’ll like it.

  • 8 January 2020 at 5:01am
    Alan Levitan says:
    There are two instances of "ass" in "assassination". Only one in the White House.

    • 9 January 2020 at 5:28am
      Alices Restaurant says: @ Alan Levitan
      See previous and above. Hate-Trump and delusion makes an "ass" out of self-serving discontent.

  • 9 January 2020 at 5:48am
    Alices Restaurant says:
    For LRB writers -- neutered by Irgun -- such is beyond their ken: "It’s hard to explain Trump’s decision other than as a response to insult, since such a dangerous escalation seems inconsistent with his aversion to foreign wars, and his (so far) unerring sensitivity to his right-wing isolationist base."

    LRB didn't get Brexit and didn't get Trump 2016. What more to say than sour discontent -- post-Modern liberal imperial stomping to the dustbin of history--finally.

    • 9 January 2020 at 9:15am
      Joe Morison says: @ Alices Restaurant
      I would say the LRB has fully got both Brexit and Trump, if by ‘get’ you mean understand. If you’re objection is that they both won when we all wish they hadn’t, that’s hardly a criticism of the LRB’s stance. For that we need a generation or so to pass so that history can make its judgement. When it does, I have no doubt that the LRB will have been shown to be on the side of the angels.

  • 9 January 2020 at 6:44am
    neddy says:
    To Joe Morison. Your points are well taken. But bullets and missiles (bombs) stopped Hitler. How does any leader know what is the wise course before history unfolds and reveals the answer? And it seems Trump has won a major public relations victory over Iran. If my news sources are accurate, then Iran warned the base it intended to attack in advance of its missile launch, and in any case dropped the missiles short of the "target". Trump is smirking and grinning in his usual manner. And he imposes more sanctions against the Iranians. That will really hurt.
    I don't know anything about the Boeing 737 that fell out of the sky over Iran. Australia's media have been curiously silent on this - so far. We will have to wait to find out if this was a planned assault, a rogue attack, a coincidental terrorist attack on board the plane, or a mechanical/electronic failure. It seems too much of a coincidence to me for it to be anything other than a response to Soleimani's assassination.

    • 9 January 2020 at 9:09am
      Joe Morison says: @ neddy
      I’m not a pacifist, neddy; sometimes we have to fight. However, it should only ever be as a last resort, as it was with Hitler where the choice was either to accept the Nazification of Europe or go to war. You’re absolutely right about the benefits of hindsight, but all we ever seem to have done in the Middle East is make things worse. Furthermore, we are not there to protect ourselves but to protect our commercial interests. The whole thing stinks, particularly our propping up repressive regimes because at least the bastard in charge is our bastard.

  • 11 January 2020 at 6:29am
    twlldynpobsais says:
    This article was an amazing whitewashing of the vicious intent of the General and of Iran as a whole.
    Not once was the word "terrorist" mentioned. Instead, a fawning mini obituary of an elite killer.

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