THE US has killed Iran’s leading state terrorist and so far deterred deadly retaliation. However, the dominant Leftist messages are about American belligerency and even imperialism. Yet we should not let the dominant narratives of our time blind us to Iranian belligerency and imperialism, or the consequences of letting Iran off the hook again.
First, let’s set some parameters about the late General Qasem Soleimani. He had been involved in Iran’s terrorism and insurgency abroad for nearly forty years, almost half of them as leader. He was designated a terrorist by the US in 2011, given his involvement in human rights abuses in Syria, and again for an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
He was most influential in Iraq: he had stoked Shia rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s regime since the 1980s. Before you think him a hero for opposing Saddam, consider that Saddam, although his government over-represented Sunnis and even his own tribe, promoted Shia and Christians to ministerial level. Soleimani’s alternative was the particularly Iranian politicisation of Shi-ism, to which most Shia then did not subscribe.
He failed to overturn one Iraqi sectarian elite with another before the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1988), but he was one of the sectarian entrepreneurs who turned Lebanon into a vicious cycle of ethnic-religious genocide.
Of course, you can find apologists who characterise the Shia militants in Lebanon as freedom fighters. Jeremy Corbyn was one of these apologists, and the Labour Party seems to have made such a view a condition of membership.
However, fighting for one form of exclusion over another is not a fight for freedom. Leftists typically characterise Iranian violence as anti-imperialist too (because French, American, and eventually Israeli forces have been targeted while based inside Lebanon), but Iran takes its violence outside ‘foreign occupation’. Iranian attacks on Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand, and Georgia in 2012, for instance, were anti-Israeli, not anti-Israeli-imperialism in those countries.
Soleimani declared victory when Israel gave up its last presence in Lebanon in 2000, which encouraged expansion of his imperialism. His capabilities were gruesomely revealed when he returned to Iraq after the American-led overthrow of Saddam in 2003. He did not stop with the end of Saddam, or even the end of Sunni-domination, but mobilised anti-Saddam militia against Western troops. Even the New York Times, which leans dove-ish on foreign issues, admits his culpability in hundreds of American deaths in Iraq. British blood, too, must be on his hands.
Soleimani took credit for Western failure in Iraq by the end of the 2000s, in time to exploit the Arab Spring in 2011. Afghani, Pakistani and Iraqi Shia proxies were transferred into Syria to fight for an undoubted autocrat and repressor. Before you jump to the conclusion that this co-belligerency contributed to the defeat of the Islamic State, consider that Shia sectarianism confirms Sunni sectarianism by mirroring it, ie: ‘There are only two sides, and you’d better pick one.’
Soleimani went public while forging an arc of loyal territory from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran, including privileged air corridors and even a highway. In 2014, he allowed photographs of himself in Northern Iraq to be circulated on social media.
Then he became personally involved in social media, in a way that is usually caricatured as Trumpian. In July 2018, he threatened the US in an Instagram message, to which Trump responded with a tweet: ‘NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES . . . ’
Then Soleimani pasted a photo of himself with a movie still of an exploding White House.
In November, Soleimani used imagery from the television series Game of Thrones to mimic imagery that Trump had used when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement. This social media battle came to an end in April 2019, when Instagram suspended his account.
In the first week of 2020, the US President was advised by the director of the CIA that the risk was greater from letting Soleimani live than from provoking Iranian retaliation. With intelligence specifying his location such that he could be targeted, and intelligence specifying his further plans to harm Americans in Baghdad, Donald Trump chose to kill him in Baghdad. Since then, Trump has alleged that Soleimani was plotting to blow up the US embassy there, and that he was responsible for the mobbing of the same embassy in December. Soleimani had allegedly targeted US embassies before, such as a failed plot in Azerbaijan in 2011. In 2013, he put Shia militia on standby to attack US targets in Iraq if the US attacked Syria. At the same time, an Iranian operative was arrested while allegedly targeting the US embassy in Tel Aviv.
The Iranians have confirmed American expectations, at least so far. They chose to retaliate inside Iraq, with a few rockets directed at US military bases, without casualties, rather than execute any of the sensational warnings about blocking the Straits of Hormuz or blowing up neighbouring oil refineries. Trump subsequently characterised the absence of American casualties as a de-escalation. However, experts that I trust have warned that Iran makes a virtue out of patience: it will bide its time while preparing a meaningful retaliation. Subsequently, the man in charge of Iran’s missiles warned that the strikes on US military bases were the start of ‘big operations’ across the region.
My understanding is that American and British officials are wise to the long-term threat, despite the soothing political talk. Within hours of Soleimani’s death, British and American public-private liaison channels were flowing with warnings about potential cyber attacks as retaliation.
These warnings are reminders that Iran is a bad actor in cyberspace too. In July 2018, the US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said that Iran was one of the four states launching daily cyber attacks on the US (the others are Russia, China, and North Korea).
That’s not to say the US isn’t conducting cyber espionage daily, or that cyber confrontations aren’t a vicious cycle, but Iran uses cyber activities to punish legal activities. For instance, in August 2012, Iran launched cyber attacks on foreign companies involved in the embargo of Iranian oil. Aramco of Saudi Arabia was disrupted for two weeks and ended up deleting the best part of 30,000 hard drives. If you think this is just a Saudi problem, consider that we all pay more for energy as a result: Iran costs you money. It could cost you a lot more. To illustrate how sinister this can get, in 2013 Iranian hackers infiltrated the control system of a dam near New York City.
We should be worried about old-fashioned kinetic attacks too, if only by accident. The current evidence suggests that hyper-alert Iranian military shot down the Ukrainian airliner which crashed, killing 176, the day that Iranian rockets hit US military bases in Iraq.Iran has blocked international investigators, refused to hand over the black box, and swept the site of evidence.
There are two lessons here:
First: you can’t trust Iran to handle its conventional military power safely, which costs us all as travellers;
Second: you can’t trust Iran to comply with international law and norms, which damages global security.
Now contrast Iran’s contempt for international institutions with consensual liberal-institutional apologies and denials. One journalist has blamed America for Soleimani’s provocations, warns against American adventurism, and advises, ‘It is time for the United States to de-escalate’. The ridiculous BBC admits no terrorism in its biography of Soleimani; instead, it characterises everything he did as ‘covert operations’. The BBC’s ‘defence and diplomatic correspondent’ wonders whether the killing was part of any strategy at all, and whether the US realises the consequences. The same correspondent answered readers’ questions by quoting only one academic, who declared the killing illegal. The BBC’s ‘Middle East editor’ also fails to mention any Iranian terrorism, but worries that Soleimani’s death will help Islamic State terrorism. The EU called an emergency meeting that it falsely publicised as an effort to avert a US-Iran war, but is actually yet another attempt to save its nuclear agreement, even though the US and Iran have already abandoned it.
By contrast, consider the lessons of Soleimani’s rise, as I have documented above. He was emboldened by the lack of consequences over four decades operating in multiple countries in support of terrorists, sectarians, and autocrats. To preach de-escalation while Iran prepares its long-term retaliation would be to learn the wrong lesson. Iran needs to be deterred and contained: it is a terrorist, imperialist and belligerent state that is emboldened by lack of reaction.
Let’s pick a precedent that cannot be dismissed as American propaganda. In 1992, Iranian proxies bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29. Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organisation declared responsibility. Hezbollah rarely acts without Iranian orders or approval, and this case was no different. In 1994, the proxies came back to bomb the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, killing 85. Incidentally, in the same month Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy and a Jewish charity in London.
Before any reader thinks that Iran’s involvement has been exaggerated, consider that Argentine authorities covered up Iran’s involvement and dragged out the investigation for a decade before a court found alleged local anti-Semites not guilty. The current vice-president and former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is one of many officials indicted for covering up the Iran connection, although the public prosecutor was shot dead four days after indicting her. Why would states cover for Iran? In Kirchner’s case, she was accused of putting Iranian trade before Argentinian justice.
She’s also one of those tedious Western Leftists who sees Western conspiracies everywhere (including, she alleged, an American plot to assassinate her). Nobody has ever been held accountable for either bombing in Buenos Aires. By contrast, a British court convicted two Palestinian students for the bombing in London.
Now, if you’re wondering why you’ve heard so little about this particular Iranian-Argentinian conspiracy, you can blame the people who filter out the bad stuff about the non-Western and Leftist worlds, and exaggerate the bad stuff about the Western and non-Leftist (aka ‘fascist’) worlds.
This Marxist consensus (mistermed the ‘liberal consensus’) starts at universities, where courses on international relations with any theoretical or empirical rigour are defunded in favour of Marxist, feminist, post-modernist, and broadly deconstructionist ‘perspectives’. Yes, ‘perspective’ is a synonym for ‘bias’, but the people with ‘perspectives’ are too dismissive of literalness to realise. Yet their ‘post-truth’ progressiveness does not stop them peddling their ‘perspectives’ as truths. You heard that right: they don’t realise their hypocrisies either.
From universities, the Marxist consensus literally graduates to the media. For instance, Iran was in an outright shooting war with Saudi Arabia in September 2019: you probably don’t remember, because mainstream media hardly covered it; and when they did report on it, they were less keen to report events than to pass on Iranian denials. Iranian drones attacked oil installations inside Saudi Arabia, flying from within Iran – the US and Saudi Arabia said so immediately; and the UN confirmed the same in late December. However, Iran claimed the drones must have come from Yemen, where Iranian proxies have been warring against Saudi proxies for years. Ironically, Iran was culpable for the same Yemen-based attacks that it was now trying to blame for Iran-based attacks. Yet Western media were more sceptical of US and Saudi claims than Iranian claims.
I am not saying you shouldn’t be sceptical of Western governments. After all, Britons have learnt how dishonest and conspiratorial the British government can be in its opposition to a popular choice for Brexit (roll on Dominic Cummings’s reform of the civil service). I am saying you should be sceptical of Iran the terrorist state and of the Marxist elite that interprets it.