Striking Soleimani: the head of the octopus - analysis

The US was faced with a tactical quandary: whether or not to take out a leader knowing it will cause instability and that he will be replaced.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper leaves after a press briefing at Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., December 20, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper leaves after a press briefing at Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., December 20, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
Finally, someone went for the head of the octopus.
And, yes, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force is an octopus, with its terrorist tentacles reaching Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even further afield. And its head was its commander Qasem Soleimani.
The decision to hit at the head of the octopus came because Soleimani – flush with a feeling that he somehow had the US on the ropes, and that US President Donald Trump did not want to risk a major military confrontation in the Middle East – overplayed his hand.
It is one thing to attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, as the Iranians did this summer without an American response. And it is one thing to down a US drone and attack a Saudi oil facility, all again undertaken without an American response.
But it is quite another to besiege the US embassy in Baghdad, forcing the evacuation of the US ambassador and filling American television screens from Orlando to Oakland with pictures of screaming rioters chanting death to America, and setting parts of the embassy compound alight.
Soleimani should have got the hint that America’s patience was wearing thin when Trump responded to an attack on an Iraqi base that killed an American contractor and wounded four US soldiers by blasting bases belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, in Iraq and Syria, killing 24.
But Soleimani didn’t get the hint, and 2020 began with riots against the US embassy in Baghdad that conjured up the memories and traumas of 1979 and the US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.
Trump had to respond – and he had to respond for two reasons.
First, he had to respond for strategic reasons, to send a message to the Iranians, the entire Middle East and the Russians – who have strongly entrenched themselves in the region – that the US still needed to be taken seriously in this part of the world.
Second, he had to respond for political reasons, to send a message to his voters that he was not Jimmy Carter, who diddled when America was humiliated by the 1979 embassy takeover in Tehran, and that he was not Hillary Clinton, whom he pounded during their presidential campaign for the way she handled the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012, when she was secretary of state.
Trump had to respond, and he responded in a way that some Israeli politicians – such as Defense Minister Naftali Bennett – have been advocating for years: by hitting the head of the octopus.
Is it dangerous? Yes. Should the US, its Persian Gulf allies and Israel be on high alert for retaliation? Yes. Will the Iranians try to take revenge? Probably. But does it send an unequivocal message to the ayatollahs in Iran and weaken the Islamic Republic’s capacities? Certainly.
Israel has experience with the kind of decision that Trump was faced with. Do you hit an arch-terrorist, even though you know that by so doing you will open yourself up to a revenge attack? Or do you conclude that everyone can be replaced, and that if you assassinate the head of a terrorist organization, his place will quickly be filled by a deputy who is as deadly?
Nobody has taken responsibility for the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah’s No. 2, Imad Mugniyeh, in Damascus, but it is a fair guess to say that whomever did make that decision faced this quandary. It is a quandary Israel has faced on numerous occasion over the years when deciding to green-light targeted assassinations against high-profile Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah terrorist leaders – most recently, when it decided in November to kill Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Bahaa Abu al-Ata in Gaza.
Israel’s conclusion, as judged by its actions over the years, has been that while everyone is technically replaceable, while another terrorist may take over from a killed leader, there is a qualitative difference among leaders, and the person next-in-line may not have the same “skills,” abilities, charisma or ideological purity of the person who was assassinated.
Or, as former head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin said in a KAN Bet interview on Friday, there are certain leaders of militaries and terrorist organization whereby if you hit them, the chance of someone taking their place right away is slim. Mugniyeh was one such leader, and Soleimani – he said – is likely another.
Iran’s Quds Force is a military power spanning borders and even continents. It was not all Soleimani. But he was the leader who held it all together, who had the leverage, the history, the abilities, the contacts, and the trust of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All of a sudden the most active terrorist force in the Middle East is without the man who made it such.
The Quds Force without Soleimani remains a deadly force, but it is not the same. Just as, deputy Mossad Chief Ram Ben-Barak said in an Army Radio interview, Hezbollah after Mughniyeh is not the same as it was before he was killed. And that, Ben-Barak said, has been good for Israel.
Over the next few days the Iranians will scream and rant and threaten Apocalypse Now, but while everyone should take their threats seriously, there is no reason for panic.
The Iranians may act against the US, and against US allies such as Israel, but they surely must understand that the US may respond – and as Trump now has shown – with more force than the Islamic Republic can muster.
The supreme interest of Iran’s supreme leader, and the ayatollahs surrounding him, is survival. Following Soleimani’s assassination, Khamenei must now know that if he overplays his hand again, his personal survival – and that of his regime – may be under threat.