This was a long time coming.
The strike President Donald Trump authorized on Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani neutralized a bad actor with American blood on his hands. According to a Pentagon estimate, roughly one in six U.S. casualties sustained in the effort to subdue the insurgency during the Iraq war was attributable to Iranian actions. Soleimani took an active part in that campaign, establishing training camps and setting up factories to produce the explosive charges that penetrated American armored vehicles.
Soleimani remained outside America’s grip under George W. Bush, and, when the Obama administration began withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in 2010, the Shiite militias he controlled proved a critical backstop for an Iraqi president who couldn’t rely solely on the hapless Iraqi Security Forces. When the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions on Soleimani amid its quest to secure a nuclear accord with Iran, one of his first stops was in Moscow, to coordinate Iranian and Russian efforts to crush the U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebellion in Syria.
In the months leading up to Soleimani’s death, Iran had begun prosecuting a region-wide campaign of provocations. In 2019, Iran was responsible for the piracy of foreign-flagged vessels in the critical Strait of Hormuz. It engaged in what the nations Iran targeted called a “sophisticated and coordinated” special forces strike on international oil tankers. Iran downed a multi-million-dollar American surveillance drone, and it executed a sophisticated strike on the world’s largest petroleum processing facility in Saudi Arabia. For all this, Tehran faced no proportionate response from the West.
In December alone, Iranian Shiite proxy forces began targeting joint US-Iraq military facilities in Iraq with increasingly sophisticated missile strikes. There had been ten such strikes by the time Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asked the Iraqi government to help prevent attacks targeting U.S. soldiers on December 16th, though to no avail. A rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia killed an American contractor and wounded three U.S. troops on December 28. In response, the U.S. carried out retaliatory strikes on the militia’s positions in Iraq and Syria. Tehran did not relent.
In a dramatic escalation, demonstrators loyal to the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, trapping its diplomats and staffers in guarded safe rooms and directly threatening the American presence in Iraq. The Pentagon intercepted intelligence suggesting further Soleimani-directed attacks on U.S. diplomats were imminent. The president acted preemptively.
To hear Trump’s critics tell it tonight, this was a reckless assault on the existing order in the Middle East, but there is no order in the Middle East—not if Iran has anything to say about it. Today, U.S. troops are in grave jeopardy as Iran will likely seek to target them in response, these same voices say, but the events of the past month made it clear they were already in jeopardy. Indeed, they are positioned to prevent conflict—as a tripwire—precisely because an attack on them is understood by America’s adversaries as something that will always be followed on with a disproportionate response. According to some like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, Trump’s actions are possibly illegal because he failed to notify Congress of his intent to execute a surprise strike on the Quds commander. Sorry. This was not the covert murder of a political official. It was a strike on a terrorist commander—an eventuality the 2001 Authorization of Military Force governing rules of engagement in the age of terror fully anticipated.
Trump’s critics appear to believe that Soleimani’s removal from the battlefields of the Middle East is heedless and risky, but the opposite is more arguably the case. His presence in the region had become untenable.
It has been plain for some time that the effort to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East had failed, and deterrence doesn’t reestablish itself. An adversary intent on upending the status quo will continue to test its parameters until it encounters an unacceptable level of resistance or risk. Despite what critics are saying tonight, the Trump administration has thus far underreacted to naked Iranian aggression. Iran’s recklessly provocative actions have only grown bolder, and it was inevitable that the U.S. would one day have to respond in kind. Iran can continue to escalate the situation more than it already has, but it will do so with a new understanding that the costs for its behavior are steep. If that amounts to a check on Iranian actions, Iran will be deterred. And the Middle East will be safer for it.