According to a USA Today poll taken on Jan. 7-8, 52 percent of Americans think that the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani was “reckless.” Fifty-five percent believe that it made the US less safe. Only 24 percent say it made America safer. An ABC/Ipsos poll taken on Jan. 10-11 reached nearly identical results.
But there is one clear winner: Vladimir Putin. It’s possible that all he had to do was make a phone call. And now Trump and his administration can’t come up with a consistent justification for the killing.
Making a Martyr
Soleimani was Iran’s top military commander and one of the most revered leaders in the Islamic Republic. He worked to destabilize Iraq, drive America out of the country, and spread Iranian influence throughout the Mideast — a goal that Iran shared with its powerful ally, Russia. Unlike Osama Bin Laden who remained in hiding, Soleimani operated in plain sight for decades and was always an easy target for American forces.
But both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had rejected killing him as too provocative. Until Jan. 2, so did Trump — and for good reason. Soleimani’s death immediately united Iranians against America and energized pro-Iranian forces in Iraq.
So now, after the US has spent more than a trillion dollars and sacrificed the lives of nearly 5,000 American service members over the past 17 years, the Iraqi parliament has voted to expel all American forces from the country.
For Putin, who has worked to increase his influence in the region, Soleimani’s martyrdom was a small price to pay for that outcome.
How Did It Happen?
The fraught history of US-Iran relations goes back decades, but here’s a timeline of what we know about the most recent events:
Dec. 27, 2019: Rockets launched against an Iraqi military base kill a US civilian contractor and injure several American and Iraqi service members. The US blames the Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, which denies responsibility.
Dec. 28: Considering a menu of Pentagon options, Trump rejects the most extreme one: killing Soleimani.
Dec. 29: Putin calls Trump. The first report of their conversation comes from the Kremlin, which issues a readout stating that “Putin thanked Trump for information — “transmitted through the channels of US special services” — that “helped thwart terrorist acts in Russia.” It also notes noted that they discussed issues of mutual interest, agreeing to “continue bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism.” The White House has not revealed the call, so reporters traveling with Trump ask about it. Not until the next day, does the White House say that Putin called Trump to “thank him for information the United States provided that helped foil a potential holiday terrorist attack in Russia. Both Presidents committed to continuing counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries.” According to the White House, “The Presidents also discussed the state of relations between the United States and Russia and future efforts to support effective arms control.”
Dec. 29: The US attacks Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, killing at least 25 fighters and wounding 50 others.
Dec. 31: Protesting the attack, pro-Iranian military groups storm the US embassy in Baghdad. The protests end on Jan 1.
Jan. 2: Surprising his military advisers, Trump reverses course and orders Soleimani’s killing, which occurs shortly after midnight on Jan 3. The same night, a US fails in its attempt to kill Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen who helps finance armed groups across the region.
Jan. 4: As required under the War Powers Act, Trump notifies Congress of his justification for Soleimani’s assassination.
Jan. 5: The Iraqi parliament votes to expel all US forces from Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of mourners flood the streets of Tehran. Iran announces that it will end all commitments to limit nuclear fuel production. The military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader promises retaliation against the US at military sites. Trump reiterates his threat to bomb cultural sites and warns of sanctions against Iraq if it forces US troops to leave the country. Preparing for Iranian retaliation, the US suspends the fight against ISIS.
Jan. 7: Iranian missiles attack two Iraqi military bases housing American troops.
Jan. 8: Addressing the nation, Trump says that Iran’s attacks resulted in no American casualties. He also says that the US will immediately impose “additional punishing sanctions on the Iran regime” and that he is reviewing other options to respond to the Iranian strike. Later that evening, Iran accidentally shoots down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.
Jan. 10: The Trump administration imposes new economic sanctions against Iran.
Trump’s Credibility Crisis
At any time over the past three years, Trump could have ordered the killing of Soleimani. He didn’t. Why now?
Jan. 3: Secretary of State Mike Pomeo declares, “The world is a much safer place today. And I can assure you that Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassem Soleimani.” Yet as he spoke, the State Department was urging American citizens to “depart Iraq immediately.”
Jan. 3: Pompeo says the killing was necessary to disrupt an “imminent attack” that could have cost American lives in the region.
But on Jan. 4: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says that Trump’s required submission to Congress under the War Powers Resolution “raises more questions than it answers,” including “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran.”
Jan. 5: Pompeo moves away from “imminence” to emphasize Soleimani’s past actions as proof of his continuing but unspecified threat to Americans.
Jan. 9: Trump offers a new rationale: Soleimani was planning attacks against US embassies in Baghdad and elsewhere. But Democrats who received a classified briefing on Jan. 8 say they saw no evidence of embassy plots.
Jan. 10: Pompeo walks back Trump’s embassies claim, saying, “There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimani, and we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.”
Jan. 12: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he saw no intelligence about Iran posing an imminent threat to US embassies:
And Then There’s Impeachment
Jan. 10: Buried in the 28th paragraph of the front-page story in The Wall Street Journal print edition is this nugget:
“Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.”
A subsequent story in The New York Times suggested that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is one of them.
It Always Comes Back to Russia
When Trump equivocated on US support for Ukraine, Putin won a major geopolitical victory. When Trump abandoned America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, Putin won again. As Iraq demands that the US leave its country, Putin is winning yet again.
Inquiring minds would like to see a transcript of his Dec. 29 phone call to Trump.
Steven J. Harper is a regular contributor to News & Guts and the creator/curator of the Trump-Russia Timeline. He’s an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He blogs at The Belly of the Beast. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJHarper1).