A guide to navigating the Trump-Iran story

January 9, 2020
Quassem Suleimani (L) in March 2019. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

After Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian commander who led the elite forces of the Revolutionary Guard, was killed by an American drone strike in Baghdad last week, Lindsey Graham, a US senator, was the first to say that Suleimani had American “blood on his hands.”

The phrase spread quickly through the reactions of Republican members of congress and Fox News pundits who sought to defend Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing. (By one account, assassinating Suleimani had been presented to the president as the most extreme option on a menu of responses to an Iranian-backed assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad days earlier. By another, the action was taken to prevent an imminent attack.) 

Democratic politicians and presidential candidates like Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg worried that the assassination represented overreach of the president’s war powers and would destabilize the Middle East. But in their statements, they hedged that the world was a better place without Suleimani, repeating the line that he had American “blood on his hands.” 

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Even analysts from mainstream and moderate publications that worried “We Cannot Afford A War with Iran” (Washington Monthly) or warned that “The U.S. Public Doesn’t Want a War with Iran” (Foreign Policy) recycled the “blood on his hands” comment. Writing for Time.com to describe the assassination as a tactical success but a strategic miscalculation, James Stavridis, a retired admiral, called the “blood on his hands” phrase “hackneyed”—but only because it didn’t begin “to describe the level of death and destruction he left in his wake in the Middle East.”

Killing and, metaphorically speaking, getting blood on their hands, is what soldiers devote their professional lives to. Since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Iran and the US have been engaged in a proxy cold war, and there has been ample opportunity for Suleimani to get his hands wet. 

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The main American charge against him is that under his command Iran flooded Iraq with powerful explosives capable of penetrating armored vehicles and, when deployed by Iraqi anti-American Shiite militias, killed hundreds and wounded thousands of American soldiers. As a correspondent for Time magazine in Baghdad in 2004, I survived a roadside bombing while traveling in a Humvee with American army engineers through a Shiite neighborhood. It could very well have been the downstream result of a Suleimani operation. (As we were aware then, though it often gets forgotten: Suleimani, and the Islamic Republic, represent the Shia part of the Islamic faith. It is distinct from, and sometimes stands in opposition to, Sunni Islam, from which extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS spring.)

The invasion of Iraq is now widely seen as a disaster, resulting in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. But few in the US political and media mainstream would describe former President George W. Bush, who started that war, or the American generals who waged it, as having “blood on their hands.” Nor would it be said of successive American administrations that have collaborated on covert operations in Iraq with the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a cult-like anti-Islamic Republic terror organization in Iran responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. Nor would it be said of George H.W. Bush, who, while campaigning for president in 1988 ostentatiously refused to apologize for the killing of 290 Iranians aboard a civilian jet-liner that was shot down that year by the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.

“Blood on his hands” is, clearly, a political cliché. For the right, it is an expression of their politics of grievance, an assertion that Americans are the victims of irrational, baseless Middle Eastern Islamic terrorism and hatred. The right is attempting to use conflict with Iran to assert the moral high ground of American military violence, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. For the mainstream media and what remains of America’s foreign policy elite, calling out Suleimani as having “blood on his hands” allows them to warn about the consequences of a war with Iran without seeming to sympathize with the enemy or ask deeper questions about the morality of American force. It calls out the killing as perhaps unwise, but legitimate, even inevitable. “Qassem Soleimani was never going to die peacefully in his bed,” Bobby Ghosh wrote for Bloomberg Opinion.

But as we brace for the possibility of war with Iran, brought by a president who promised to get American soldiers out of the Middle East, it’s important to recognize that tropes demonizing Iran—as irrational, volatile, inherently violent—mask our responsibility for 40 years of conflict with the Islamic Republic. At this point it may be too late for any American leader, let alone one who famously never apologizes, to reset that relationship. But it is very much possible for our media to acknowledge the biases and amnesias that have helped propel us into conflict with Iran and trap us in forever wars in the region. 

What follows is a list of points to keep in mind, and useful things to read, as we try and navigate the story. 

The significance of 1979:

When President Trump initially threatened to destroy 52 of Iran’s most important cultural sites he was referring to a seminal moment during the Iranian Revolution of 1979: the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran that set America and Iran on a collision course. Student revolutionaries involved in overthrowing the US-backed dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. 

That event, which ultimately helped bring down Jimmy Carter’s presidency, seared into American memory the imagine of Iranians as a bearded and turbaned mob of zealots burning US flags and chanting “Death to America.” But what got lost in the coverage of the event was that the students had targeted the embassy because it had been used back in 1953 by the Central Intelligence Agency as the headquarters of an operation to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had earned Western ire for nationalizing Iranian oil. The students were worried that history would repeat itself. 

The history of the Iranian-American relationship: 

In All the Shah’s Men (2003) perhaps the single most important book to read about the fractured about Iranian-American relationship, Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent, charts how the US coup against Mossadegh—a move sold by the British to the Eisenhower administration as necessary to prevent Iran from falling to communism—and US support for an oppressive security state run by the Shah, paved the way for the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic, and the invention of Middle Eastern terrorism.

Suleimani himself: 

If the Islamic Republic is the institutional result of blowback from American policy towards Iran, Suleimani is the personification. As Dexter Filkins, a writer for The New Yorker, described in a comprehensive profile, in 2013, Suleimani was a former construction worker who began his military career during the Iran-Iraq War, which started in 1980 when the US encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and crush the newly founded Islamic Republic. 

That conflict caused an astounding slaughter in Iran, including from Iraqi chemical weapons purchased from France. It solidified hardliners in the Islamic Republic and reinforced a siege mentality among them. The conflict also encouraged Suleimani and others in Iran to deepen their relationship with anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as a way of developing regional deterrence against future American threats.

But Suleimani wasn’t a simple enemy to America. Recently, when Vice President Mike Pence accused Suleimani of helping the 9/11 hijackers, he did so either in ignorance or cynicism. In his profile, Filkins recounts how, after September 11, 2001, Suleimani led Iran’s cooperation with the US in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda. (As a Sunni extremist group, Al Qaeda was a mutual enemy of both nations.) But that cooperation ended when President Bush included Iran in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech. And the relationship turned to outright hostility in 2003, when the US threatened to follow up its invasion of Iraq with an invasion of Iran. 

To further complicate matters, Suleimani was the point man for Iran’s relationship with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as that government perpetrated a gruesome campaign of violence against democratic campaigners. But he also led Iran’s coordination with the US and Iraq in the fight against ISIS. And on Sunday, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister, told his parliament that Suleimani had arrived in Baghdad, the venue for the US strike that killed him, in order to address a proposal that the Iraqi government broker a de-escalation between Iran and the US. Abdul-Mahdi’s statement, of course, undermines the Trump administration’s justification that killing Suleimani was a preemptive strike meant to save American lives. 

The futility of decapitation:

National security experts have pointed out that killing leaders of covert operations rarely stops the operations from happening. “In a proper interagency review, the intelligence community could have pointed out that ‘decapitation’ is a patently unreliable means of pre-emption,” Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, writes in a New York Times opinion piece. Particularly, he added, when “the organization in question is the Revolutionary Guard, an integral part of a well-honed security state with considerable depth of command talent.”

Narges Bajoghli, a Johns Hopkins professor who studies the Revolutionary Guard, writes in another Times opinion piece that, although the Islamic Republic promoted the Suleimani legend, his reputation belies the fact that the militant organizations he helped establish can continue fighting against larger forces.  

Besides, according to a recent cache of Iranian intelligence documents obtained by The Intercept, Suleimani was the subject of criticism within Iran’s military apparatus, for being too aggressive and creating too many enemies, as Iran extended its military presence across the region.

The escalation:

Rather than deter Iranian action against US forces, the Suleimani assassination has become the first link in what may be a chain of escalating conflict between America and Iran. It began this week with a retaliatory Iranian missile strike on US bases in Iraq.  

The two nations have been on a collision course since May 2018, when Trump pulled the US out of a nuclear deal that allowed Iran to return to international oil markets in exchange for shutting down its nuclear energy program. The Trump Administration—which seemed to withdraw from the deal simply out of visceral hatred of the Obama administration, which had formed it—argued that scrapping the agreement and imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran’s economy would stop Iran’s nuclear program and end Iran’s support for regional militant groups. 

Iran voluntarily abided by the nuclear deal despite Trump’s backing out. But now its president, Hassan Rouhani, has declared that his country will no longer honor it. The Iranian government, which has been coy about its nuclear program, may now open up—and make enough weapons-grade uranium to serve as a deterrent to American aggression. It’s plausible that pressure will begin to build on the US to stage an assault on the country’s nuclear facilities.

Strengthening the hardliners:

Neocon zealots in and around the Trump administration are pushing for more US action, which they believe could spark an internal uprising against the Islamic Republic. “Hope this is the first step towards regime change in Tehran,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, told Twitter. 

But after a brutal government crackdown on protests against the regime last fall, leaving hundreds dead, and the ramping-up of Iran’s surveillance apparatus, the country’s oppositional politics are essentially over. (My wife, Nahid Siamdoust, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale, pointed that out in a Foreign Affairs article.) 

And now the Islamic Republic has been provided the vivifying force of a dramatic enemy. It is likely that the Trump administration has empowered the very extremists it sought to punish. 

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Andrew Lee Butters is a former Time magazine Beirut bureau chief and Middle East correspondent. He now teaches journalism at Yale College. He graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2003.