In the end, he died as he had lived; amid violence and bloodshed, this time brought about by a hand other than his own.
Let no one be in any doubt that the death of Qassem Soleimani, targeted by a US airstrike on Baghdad airport in the early hours of Friday, is as significant in its own way as those of Osama bin Laden, the head of Al-Qaeda, and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh. Like those two killers, Soleimani brought death and destruction to a vast swath of the Middle East and beyond. And like them, the more publicity his vile deeds attracted, the better he liked it.
It was not always thus with Soleimani. For at least 15 years, in his role as head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he did Iran’s dirty work in the shadows, spreading the malign influence of the mullahs and their revolution to anyone foolish enough to listen. Then, about five years ago, he seemed to start believing his own publicity, and the real Soleimani emerged; arrogant, preening and boastful of his personal power.
Since then, wherever there has been death and mayhem in this region, you will find a glossy photo or a slick video of Soleimani, his arm round the shoulder of some hapless militiaman recruited to the cause of Iranian supremacy — the people Lenin called “useful idiots.”
And what a price this region has paid for Soleimani’s bloodlust and vanity. In Iraq, hundreds of coalition troops killed in thousands of attacks by Soleimani-trained militias in the quagmire that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein; and more recently, when Iraqis took to the streets in protest against the corruption and ineptitude of their Iranian puppet government, Soleimani, as Arab News reported, flew to Baghdad to take personal charge of the brutal crackdown in which at least 450 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed.
In Syria, when Bashar Assad required assistance in butchering his own people, where did he turn? To Soleimani, of course, to his Quds Force, and to his trained Hezbollah thugs next door in Lebanon. The result is that Soleimani has the blood of half a million Syrians on his hands, not to mention the plight of millions who do not know if they will ever see their homes or families again.
In Yemen, the Houthi militias would have long since returned to their northern redoubt were it not for Soleimani. Instead, supplied with his weapons, equipment and training, they continue to fight a war they can never win, and target Saudi civilians with missiles built from parts supplied by Iran.
So let there be no tears shed for Qassem Soleimani; he must have known that he could not get away with these crimes for ever, and that he would not die in his bed. The questions now are, what lessons can be learned, and where do we go from here?
The first lesson, apparently learned neither by Europe in the 1930s nor by the Obama administration 80 years later, is that no good comes of appeasing bullies and tyrants. It is not a coincidence that Qassem Soleimani’s emergence into the public consciousness around 2015 coincided with Obama’s ill-fated agreement to try to curb Iran’s nuclear program by easing sanctions. Soleimani saw the nuclear deal as a victory, and it is to Donald Trump’s credit that he has done everything in his power to snatch that victory from the Iranian’s grasp — including, on Friday, the ultimate sanction.
As to the future, the doomsayers have already seen it; Iran will retaliate, they say, matters will escalate, and we are on the path to a Third World War. The pessimists, however, forget two things. First, that Iran has been at war with the civilized world for 40 years, and the principle sufferers have been the Iranian people themselves. Second, nothing is inevitable. No sane person wants a war; this region has already buried too many of its sons and daughters for that. As Saudi Arabia said on Friday, this is a time for self-restraint, not for actions that will serve only to make a tense situation worse. Qassem Soleimani suffered from an excess of pride, and sometimes it appears that Iran does too. It is time to swallow that pride and come to the negotiating table to reach an agreement on the future, whereby Iran retains its dignity, but, in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, also regains its place among the community of nations.