The Media Today

The killing of Qassem Suleimani and the road to war with Iran

January 3, 2020

In the early hours of the morning, local time, state media in Iraq reported that Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence official, had been killed in a drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport, along with figures tied to Iran-backed Iraqi militias. In the United States, where it was Thursday night, the news quickly spread, albeit with key details missing; cable news shows and one broadcast network, CBS, cut into their programming with portentous reports that something serious had happened. An hour or so later, the US government confirmed that its military had killed Suleimani at the direction of the president. Trump remained strangely quiet, though he did tweet a picture of an American flag. In response, Iranian officials tweeted their country’s flag, and threats of revenge. Such is the road to war in 2020.

Some context: Suleimani was greatly influential in Iran and widely revered by his countrymen. As head of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he was responsible for Iran’s prodigious maneuvering throughout the Middle East. According to a former operative of the Central Intelligence Agency who spoke to Dexter Filkins in 2013 for The New Yorker, “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East.” In recent years, Suleimani was influential in buttressing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and other efforts that cost lives—including those of US troops—in countries from Iraq to Lebanon. According to the New York Times, Trump’s plan to kill Suleimani was initiated last week, after the administration accused an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia of killing an American contractor in an attack on an Iraqi military base. The militia denied involvement; the US bombed some of the militia’s bases anyway. Afterward, when militia members sieged the US embassy in Baghdad (staffers were trapped inside; none were hurt), American officials blamed Suleimani for being the instigator.

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Presidents Obama and Bush never took shots to kill Suleimani, fearing war with Iran. Trump went ahead and did it. Does that mean we’re now at war with Iran? Experts’ initial reactions, it seems, have fallen on a spectrum—from let’s keep things in perspective to war is now inevitable to we’re already there. (In The Atlantic, Andrew Exum, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Obama, wrote that the killing of Suleimani “doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.”) Two points of consensus emerged: that we are in uncharted territory and that whatever happens next will not be good. “No ‘hot take’ makes any sense now,” Rasha Al Aqeedi of Irfaa Sawtak, a site associated with the US-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks, wrote. “None of us who work on Iraq closely ever anticipated a scenario without him.”

Nevertheless, hot takes abounded—on Twitter, where everybody suddenly seemed to be an expert on Iran, and in the news. (In particular, a CNBC piece—“America just took out the world’s no. 1 bad guy”—took a lot of heat online.) Cable shows invited guests with close ties to the military-industrial complex: Fox News hosted Bush stalwarts Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer; MSNBC interviewed Brett McGurk, a diplomat involved in Iraq policy during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations; CNN had on Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist who was a vocal proponent of the Iraq war. For many progressive commentators, it was all a bit too 2003 for comfort. “Cable news is hard-wired to support war,” Carlos Maza, formerly of Vox, tweeted. “It relies heavily on ex-military, ex-national security people for commentary, and routinely marginalizes anti-war voices.”

Much has changed since the early 2000s, including Boot’s perspective. He has recanted his support for the Iraq war and warned that war with Iran would be worse. Still, as I wrote last year amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran, much mainstream coverage of the countries’ relationship has been too quick to paint Iran as the menacing, unilateral aggressor, and has parroted US government talking points without applying due skepticism.

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Last night, as reporters scrambled to fill in the details of Suleimani’s killing, news outlets turned repeatedly to press releases, including the Pentagon’s assurance that the strike on Suleimani “was aimed at deterring future attack plans.” As the Post’s Josh Rogin tweeted, “By the Pentagon’s own logic, if Iran retaliates, the strike mission failed its key goal. Remember that.” That’s sound advice. Already, Iran is promising “harsh retaliation.”

Below, more on Qassem Suleimani and Iran:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.