In January 2020, just days after the United States assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iran responded with a missile attack that wounded over 100 American soldiers, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech titled “The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example.” Pompeo then claimed that the assassination “re-establish[ed] deterrence” with Iran, but as the dramatic increase in attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. interests has revealed, Pompeo’s contention is even weaker almost two years later. One need not mourn the death of a terrible man to recognize that the decision to assassinate Soleimani was a reckless abuse of executive power that led to major blowback against the United States.
The Militias After the Strike
In light of the exponential increase in militia attacks on U.S. bases since January 2020, the argument that the strike re-established “real deterrence” and prevented further attacks was proven specious. While Iran quickly retaliated and sanctioned some militia reprisals against U.S. interests in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, the last two years of escalation largely resulted from the power vacuum that formed in Iraq after his death. The U.S. strike—which killed both Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a key Iraqi militia commander—incited upheaval within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State that is now an integral part of Iraq’s security services. This has created new difficulties for Tehran in managing its most virulent Iraqi proxy forces.
As the most hardline militias grew increasingly emboldened this past spring, it became clear that Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s replacement as head of the Quds Force, an expeditionary branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was unable to wield power and direct the militias’ actions nearly as effectively as his predecessor did. For instance, Iran made a concerted effort to halt attacks on U.S. bases as its nuclear negotiations with the United States resumed in 2021. However, without Soleimani’s unique degree of influence and mediation skills, Qaani’s repeated prohibitions against attacking U.S. bases in Iraq have been rejected by the increasingly independent hardline militias. While the Soleimani and Muhandis assassinations may have successfully weakened Iranian influence over the PMF, the void it created strengthened the most anti-U.S. elements and led to an uncontrolled escalation that Iran was unable to stop.
But these newly empowered hardline factions did not stop there. As they exhibited more operational independence and ramped up their attacks against U.S. forces, they also began aggressively confronting Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Facing immense pressure from the entrenched PMF, Kadhimi attempted a precarious balancing act, promising to rein in the militias while also allowing his government to provide the PMF with a budget of $2.5 billion. Tension between Kadhimi and the militias came to a head after the bloc affiliated with the PMF lost more than half of its seats in the October election and militia members violently protested against the results.
On November 7, as it became clear that the PMF would be unable to change the outcome of the election, Iraqi militia forces attempted to assassinate Kadhimi. According to U.S. and Iraqi officials, the attack was not authorized by Iran, and Qaani immediately traveled to Baghdad to chastise the militias for carrying out an attack that Tehran opposed. Iraqi officials believe that Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia founded by Muhandis that formerly took its orders directly from Iran, is one of the groups responsible for the attack. In the words of one Iraqi official, “this would not have happened if Qassem Soleimani was still alive.” Kata’ib Hezbollah’s likely responsibility for a brazen assassination attempt that Iran opposed is just the most recent unintended consequence of weakening Iran’s influence over the militias.
The Results of “Maximum Pressure”
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the sharp increase in attacks on U.S. forces following Soleimani’s assassination and the recent attempt on the prime minister’s life suggest that weakening Iranian influence over the militias has actually harmed U.S. interests. In addition to putting the lives of American soldiers at risk, the rise in attacks has hindered the anti-ISIS coalition’s efforts, forcing the United States to suspend operations to protect bases from attacks on multiple occasions and limiting the ability of the coalition to move freely. Furthermore, the PMF’s increasingly hostile behavior toward the Iraqi government has challenged Iraq’s fragile political system and undermined the country’s security forces.
In addition to its consequences in Iraq, Soleimani’s assassination helped set Iran on a dangerous path of nuclear expansion. Iran fully abandoned the limits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) immediately after the assassination and announced plans to accelerate uranium enrichment on the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death. Almost two years after the assassination, nuclear negotiations are close to falling apart and the Biden administration is considering the risky option of attempting to destroy Iran’s numerous nuclear facilities.
The failure of the Soleimani assassination to deter Iran-backed militias in Iraq underscores the limits of military force and the inherent challenges in attempting to deter asymmetrical threats. The United States may have changed Tehran’s calculus by killing Soleimani, but it did not make those who actually carry out the attacks feel that the risks of continuing to target U.S. bases are sufficient to refrain from doing so. With Soleimani and Muhandis, the two people who had the most control over the militias, now dead, Iran has been unable to stop attacks even when it attempts to.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, recently stated that he believes Iraqi militia attacks will increase in the coming weeks. Ultimately, Iraq militia attacks would not need to be deterred if U.S. forces were not in Iraq. Iraqi special forces have proven effective at fighting the remnants of the Islamic State and the objectives of the small advise and assist mission can be achieved without a permanent military footprint. In addition, after years of Iraqi politics being dominated by foreign meddling and sectarianism, a nationalist government that is not perceived as dependent on foreign sponsors is needed to unite the fractured country. U.S. forces and airstrikes in Iraq, which are opposed by many Iraqis and invite divisive political attacks against elected officials, are a significant barrier to the formation of a government that the Iraqi people see as legitimate.
As Pompeo boasted about the purported achievements of his Iran policy at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early 2021, he declared that “[Soleimani] didn't cause trouble for Americans ever again.” While Soleimani certainly hasn’t harmed the United States from the grave, the decision to assassinate him has had an array of negative consequences that are still felt today. Despite his defense of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, it is revealing that none of Pompeo’s twelve demands were met by Tehran. Maximum pressure did not achieve any tangible objectives, and, when Trump left the White House, Iran was the closest it had ever been to acquiring nuclear weapons since the JCPOA was signed.
The decision to assassinate Soleimani reflects the United States’ tendency to aggressively use force without considering the second-order effects that may follow. Policymakers must stop basing decisions of war and peace on the simplistic notion that if a leader is a bad person, killing him is bound to bring results that serve U.S. interests. Like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Soleimani was a terrible person with much blood on his hands. However, the power vacuums that were created following their deaths, which unleashed immense chaos and caused significant damage to U.S. interests in Iraq and Libya alike, should give policymakers pause before undertaking such operations in the future.
Will A. Smith is a graduate student at American University's School of International Service.