As far as modern American military blunders go, the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, along with the deputy commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, near Baghdad Airport last week is up there with the worst. This includes the fateful invasion of Iraq in 2003, which basically opened the floodgates of previously contained Iranian influence, altering the geopolitical balance of the region. In both instances, US decision-makers underestimated the deep cultural and religious links between Iraq (in particular its Shia citizens in the south) and its neighbour Iran.
In a reversal of weeks of anti-government protests in Baghdad and much of the south — which saw arson attacks against Iranian consulates — the backlash against America’s violation of Iraqi sovereignty by bombing its armed forces and murdering a celebrated war hero caused many Iraqis to go onto the streets to show the world how popular Soleimani was. The demonstrations also showed how strong the bond with Iran is and just how badly the administration of President Donald Trump has erred. An experienced US army intelligence analyst has started a Twitter thread explaining why killing Soleimani was a “huge mistake”.
Soleimani's slaying will backfire on US precisely because Iran has allies rather than proxies, who share deep historical, cultural, ideological & strategic ties, as I argue in my article "Challenging the sponsor-proxy model: the Iran–Hizbullah relationship”https://t.co/gbxSOWsAyf
— Amal Saad (@amalsaad_lb) January 4, 2020
Soleimani’s funeral rites were symbolic; they started in Iraq with powerful imagery of two coffins draped in Iranian and Iraqi flags, thronged by tens of thousands in the capital; similar crowds gathered in important cities such as Najaf and Karbala. This was arguably unprecedented, with public mourning in multiple cities. The turnout certainly dwarfed any display of anti-Iranian sentiments, although there will always be those who will argue that the masses were coerced onto the streets.
— Bitterfck (@Bitterfck1) January 4, 2020
The current events in Iraq also showed that the majority of Iraqi people are standing with Iran. Otherwise millions of Iraqis wouldn’t have attended Qassim Soleimanis funeral in Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad. It’s just those few twitter clowns who get the most attention. https://t.co/xz5JVxaFhT
— z 🇮🇶 (@BintAlHashd) January 6, 2020
Despite the populist turnout and anti-American chants, though, anti-Iranian sentiments persists in places like Nasriyah and Dhi Qar, indicative of internal political unrest. Nevertheless, the US air strikes against PMF positions — and the militia is part of the Iraqi state armed forces — was enough to turn the popular tide in favour of Iran, which supports the paramilitary umbrella group. Surprisingly, even the Kurdish Democratic Party, which is seen as an anti-Iran movement, and the Peshmerga forces came out in protest at the killing of the “great commander” Soleimani.
This has never happened before. Transferring the scared bodies of the martyrs to different cities and performing the funeral rituals multiple times with this massive crowd of mourners is matchless 🇮🇷 🇮🇶 #یالثارات_الحسین pic.twitter.com/Xjok72qkyI
— Maqsad e Karbala (@zainab_mirza14) January 5, 2020
As I concluded in my previous article, Iraq seeks to expel US forces. Unsurprisingly, the US has said that it will refuse to leave, rendering the status of American troops in Iraq as occupiers in a hostile environment. Ironically, Washington was spreading democracy in Iraq and is now being requested to leave by the very democratic institutions that it has encouraged. Trump’s threat of sanctions against Iraq will do his administration no favours and cause further political damage to its relations with Baghdad.
Soleimani’s remains were flown back to Iran, where funeral processions were on an even grander scale than Iraq’s. This was no surprise given that he was one of the country’s most decorated generals, which goes to show that killing a leading military official will just about unite any nation. Moreover, Trump’s threat to carry out war crimes by targeting cultural sites in Iran will horrify and enrage even the most liberal and irreligious in a society rich in history. The recent civil unrest fuelled by price hikes in fuel costs to offset the effects of the US imposed sanctions pale into insignificance.
Fastest way to unify all political factions in Iran against you is to assassinate the general who led Iran’s fight against ISIS.
Fastest way to unify Iranians of all walks of life against you is to threaten to destroy their cultural heritage.
Trump did both this week.
— Negar Mortazavi (@NegarMortazavi) January 5, 2020
This is the largest crowd I’ve ever witnessed in my life. I’ve never seen Iranians so unified, ever.
This is Suleimani’s funeral in Ahvaz, Iran.
Trump has no idea what he has done.pic.twitter.com/ScUhduX96S
— Amir (@AmirAminiMD) January 5, 2020
Even in Ahwaz, which has long been noted for its strained relations with the central government in Tehran following allegations of discrimination against the local Arab population, there were millions united in grief with their compatriots. “Trump has no idea what he’s done,” said one observer who added that he’d never seen Iranians so united. The Times of Israel reported that the funeral procession was the largest since that of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989.
What appears to be millions attending Soleimani’s funeral procession in Ahvaz, an Iranian city usually described by mainstream media as “restive”, and hence hardly a Soleimani stronghold. Trump doesn’t know what is awaiting him across the Middle East pic.twitter.com/axTonhi13n
— Amal Saad (@amalsaad_lb) January 5, 2020
Interestingly, Iran is a nation with a third of its population under the age of 30, many of whom “speak nostalgically of a more liberal time before the revolution”, an era that they did not experience personally. Even so, they are now rallying behind their nation more than ever; the people of Iran do not want regime change, nor will they be welcoming any possible invaders as liberators. We can see on social media that some young Iranians in the West are reconnecting with their religious heritage and political alignment of their parent’s homeland.
An ocean of Iranians turned out as Soleimani’s funeral procession reached the holy city of Mashhad.
And they all want revenge. pic.twitter.com/8kA3iLdBXy
— H. Sumeri (@IraqiSecurity) January 5, 2020
WATCH: Iran mourns Qassem Soleimani
The outpouring of solidarity with Iran and veneration of Soleimani as a martyr has extended beyond Iraq and Iran to the Levant, including Palestine, as well as to Yemen, Pakistan, Indian-occupied Kashmir, Britain and Nigeria.
Tonight at Islamic centre of England in London , a candle light vigil was held with special tributes and thoughts on martyrdom of Lieutenant general Hajji Qassem #Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis.#WeAreSoleimani pic.twitter.com/YguHLQaKQa
— 𝐐𝐚𝐬𝐞𝐦 𝐒𝐨𝐥𝐞𝐢𝐦𝐚𝐧𝐢 (@WeAreSolemeani) January 4, 2020
While millions around the world mourn the loss of Soleimani, others point out that his actions have led to the killing of thousands of people. What many fail to acknowledge, however, is that modern warfare has seen an unfortunate increase in civilian casualties. All armies and their generals are guilty of causing “collateral damage”, including those of Soleimani’s detractors; he and the elite Quds Force are not unique in that respect. What’s more, it has to be said that without Iranian troops and the Shia militias in Iraq, Daesh terrorists could easily have taken Baghdad and the shrine cities in the south.
‘This Ajami (Persian), this man that we called Ajami came to save us when ISIS had taken our women hostages.’
Iraqi man praises Qassem Soleimani’s for assisting the people of Iraq in their fight against the US-backed ISIS terroristspic.twitter.com/gLouUwHlur
— Zahra Shafei 🇮🇷 (@shafei_d) January 5, 2020
Ominously, a red flag has been unfurled above the Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, a significant development which taps into the Shia psyche of martyrdom. The flag suggests a readiness for war and revenge for the slain general. It is said widely that it will only be taken down when revenge has been taken.
It is debateable whether Trump was made aware of the implications of Soleimani’s assassination. There is reason to believe that he may been goaded by military intelligence to approve the air strike, especially as there was no “imminent threat” to American citizens. According to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, at the time of his murder Soleimani was in Iraq on a “diplomatic mission” that was initiated by Washington. The Iranian general was scheduled to deliver a message on behalf of Iran to the Iraqi premier in response to a message sent from Saudi Arabia in a bid to mediate between the two regional rivals. It is thus unclear to what extent Trump was actually in control and able to make such a strategic decision. Any suggestion that peace might be on the way in the Gulf not only goes against the interests of the arms industry — share prices for major arms manufacturers surged following the assassination — but also those of Israel. Amazingly, contrary to Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, Israel was apparently given advance notice of the assassination plans even before the US Congress was told anything.
Now the truth on the #SuleimaniAssassination begins to emerge. Officials briefed on the intel reveal the claims of an Iranian plan for an "imminent" attack on U.S. interests in the region was a fiction, and that Pompeo was at the center of the plot. https://t.co/b8bilvCqLp
— Gareth Porter (@GarethPorter) January 5, 2020
According to the Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council, Reza Marashi, Trump’s foreign policy is driven by a desire to be “anti-Obama”, and has been since his inauguration in 2017; the US President is surrounded by hawkish advisors looking to “settle scores” with Iran. Marashi claims that US officials have told him that after going after Soleimani throughout his presidency, Trump finally took the bait and did it. Four years ago, he had no idea who Soleimani was.
What is going to happen now? The US can expect a renewed insurgency should it ignore the Iraqi government’s troop withdrawal order, although Washington will justify this by the need to contain Iran and fight Daesh remnants. Iran will support such an insurgency, but that should not be assumed to be “the Iranian response”. According to local sources, the US has asked via Swiss intermediaries that any retaliation should be “proportionate”.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has “accidentally” let slip that his country is a nuclear power, forgoing its established policy of ambiguity somewhat conveniently at a time when Iran has said that it will abandon the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Whatever happens, America may well learn, like Israel before it, that assassinations yield minimal results. When the Israelis assassinated Sayyid Abbas Al-Musawi, the co-founder of Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, they did not foresee that under the charismatic leadership of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah the movement reach even greater political and military heights. Perhaps the Quds Force is destined to do likewise.
With so many hawks around him, I don’t believe that Donald Trump fully understands the implications of his order to kill Qassem Soleimani. How many more innocent people are going to lose their lives before he does?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.