Bret Stephens: Iran’s Qassem Soleimani was an evil man who died as he killed

(Ebrahim Noroozi | AP) Protesters hold up posters of Gen. Qassem Soleimani while mourning during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday Jan. 4, 2020. Iran has vowed "harsh retaliation" for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed Tehran's top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

Reasonable people will debate the likeliest ramifications of President Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guard commander whose power in Iran was second only to that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and whose power in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq was arguably second to none.

What shouldn’t be in doubt is the justice.

By far the best account of Soleimani’s life was written by Dexter Filkins for The New Yorker in 2013. It’s worth reprising some of the details.

In 1998, Soleimani assumed command of the Quds Force — the Guard’s extraterritorial terrorist wing — whose prior exploits included a role in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

In 2003, Filkins wrote, “Americans received intelligence that al-Qaida fighters in Iran,” operating with Tehran’s protection and consent, “were preparing an attack on Western targets in Saudi Arabia.” Despite U.S. warnings to Iran, terrorists “bombed three residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including 9 Americans.”

In 2004, Soleimani “began flooding Iraq with lethal roadside bombs” known as explosively formed projectiles, which, according to retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “killed hundreds of Americans.”

In 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and 21 others were killed in a massive car bombing in Beirut, carried out by Hezbollah. “There were Iranians on the phones directing the attack,” one former CIA official told Filkins. “If indeed Iran was involved, Soleimani was undoubtedly at the center of this.”

In 2006, Hezbollah operatives abducted and killed Israeli soldiers in an operation that, according to Filkins, was “carried out with Soleimani’s help.” It sparked a monthlong war in which thousands of people were killed.

There’s a great deal more of this. And that was just the preamble to his central role in rescuing Syria’s Bashar Assad and sustaining Yemen’s Houthi militia in power, goals pursued through policies of unrestricted brutality. As an agent of international mayhem, Soleimani’s peers were Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. To think of him as a worthy adversary — an Iranian Erwin Rommel — is wrong. He was an evil man who died as he had killed so many others.

The proximate reason for Soleimani’s killing, according to a Defense Department statement, is that he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” If so — and it hardly stretches credulity that he was — the strike was an act of preemption. No U.S. president, of any party, should ever convey to an enemy the impression it can plot attacks against Americans with impunity. To do otherwise is to invite worse.

Trump’s problem is that, until Thursday, that’s what he had done. For almost a year, an escalating series of Iranian attacks on U.S. and allied assets were met by a conspicuous failure to respond militarily. Trump also kept signaling his desire to withdraw U.S. forces from the region.

The result was to embolden the Iranians to hit harder. Instead of a calibrated cycle of escalation matched to a tacit sense of limits, the Iranians reached until they overreached. On Wednesday, Khamenei taunted Trump with the message that “there is no damn thing you can do.” The supreme leader is now a publicly humiliated man. That is enormously satisfying — and immensely dangerous. Rashness often springs from wounded pride.

One possible outcome is that a spooked Iranian leadership, already reeling from devastating sanctions and mass demonstrations, will prefer to tread lightly, at least for the time being. “Soleimani’s death could bring a sense of realism to the Islamic Republic’s thinking,” says Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad. For 40 years, the regime has succeeded abroad because it’s been willing to play dirty games against generally feckless opponents. It may now take its time to reassess that view.

The alternative? Iran could mount a global campaign of terrorist strikes, deploying foreign proxies like Hezbollah for political deniability. It could try to take hostages at the American Embassy in Baghdad, much as it did at the embassy in Tehran in 1979. It could use its influence in Iraq to demand the expulsion of U.S. troops — “accomplishing in the wake of his death what Soleimani long tried to accomplish in life,” as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes. And it could accelerate its nuclear program, forcing Trump into a major military confrontation he has been eager to avoid, especially in an election year.

The next days will be decisive. The best course for the United States is to spell out clearly to Iran what the paths of escalation — and de-escalation — hold. On the de-escalatory side, a return to the status quo ante and a willingness to explore negotiations over the full range of Iran’s malign activities, including its regional aggression and expanding nuclear program, in exchange for the easing of oil and other economic sanctions. On the escalatory side, a policy of deliberately disproportionate retaliation to any Iranian aggression, no matter whether it’s carried out by Iran or its proxies, and no matter whether it aims at us or our allies.

The clearer we are in limning the courses of hope and fear, the likelier we are to achieve a stable balance between them.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.