“Reckless,” “a dangerous escalation” and “severe revenge”: these are just a few of the words coming from international leaders and politicians in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander and the face of the Islamic Republic’s intervention across the Middle East.
“A #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s most powerful leader, wrote on Twitter early Friday morning. “Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge.”
The Thursday night airstrike that killed Iran’s most notorious military commander and spy, who headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force – the military entity’s overseas wing – for more than 20 years, is sending shockwaves through the Middle East and beyond. According to Phillip Smyth, a Shia Islamist militarism expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute, it’s “the most major decapitation strike the U.S. has ever engaged in.”
The U.S. has been pursuing the shadowy leader for decades. Soleimani was the face of Iran’s military interventions overseas and what the U.S. government describes as the country’s “malign activity,” including training and deploying proxies fighters and supporting Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shia militias in Iraq. His operations within Iraq at the height of the Iraq war killed hundreds of U.S. personnel.
Since 2003, Iranian proxies in Iraq have killed more than 600 Americans, the State Department said last year.
Yet in the U.S. response has been mixed, with a fair amount of criticism aimed at President Donald Trump from his Democratic opponents.
Former vice president Joe Biden said overnight that Soleimani “deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region,” in a statement Thursday night. But the Democratic presidential frontrunner stopped short of praising the Trump administration and warned of adverse consequences, adding “this is a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.”
“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” Biden wrote.
The hit on the mastermind of Iran’s foreign policy comes at a boiling point for U.S.-Iran tensions. It follows U.S. airstrikes in Iraq that killed 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia paramilitary group responsible for rocket strike that killed a U.S. contractor and other U.S. allies in northern Iraq in late December. The last week saw members of that militant group and others attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, many of whom chanted “Qasem Soleimani is our leader.”
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in Tehran, Iran.
Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Ahead of that, 2019 was marked by successive escalations from both sides including Washington’s designation of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, Iran’s shooting down of a U.S. drone, intensifying U.S. sanctions Tehran, attacks on oil tankers and Saudi Aramco facilities that have been blamed on Iran, and Tehran’s incremental rolling back of its commitments to the Iranian nuclear deal after the U.S. ditched it in 2018, to name a few.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on twitter early Friday morning: “The path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi also condemned the “assassination” – which was carried out in Baghdad – calling it “an act of aggression on Iraq” and “breach of sovereignty that will lead to war in Iraq, the region, and the world.”
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the small country’s most powerful political and militant entity, vowed Friday to “continue the path” of the Iranian general and described punishment of the U.S. as a responsibility of all Hezbollah fighters.
The rapid developments of the last week now put the spotlight on potential retaliatory moves from Iran as well as next steps for Trump, who ran much of his campaign – and continues to do so ahead of the 2020 election – on the promise of no more Middle East wars. For some watching the situation unfold, after Thursday’s assassination, the president may not have a choice.
Senator Liz Warren, another Democratic presidential candidate, criticized the killing despite describing Soleimani as a “murderer” and noting his responsibility for “the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans.”
“This reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths,” she wrote on Twitter late Thursday night.