There is a well-observed episode of the American television series The West Wing where the character of President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is frustrated by his advisers plans to make a “proportionate response” to the downing of a US plane by Syrian attackers despite his initial demands for a far bloodier response. In writer Aaron Sorkin’s fictional White House administration the institutional wisdom of the United States’ government and military persuades the Commander-in-Chief to follow the restrictions laid down by international convention and diplomacy. Unfortunately in the real world administration of Donald Trump the institutions of government are at breaking point, giving long-time Iran hawks in Washington an opportunity to dramatically escalate political tensions with Tehran.
The US assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the effective commander of the Quds Force, a clandestine unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) somewhat similar to the Special Activities Center of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, in a missile strike on his convoy near Baghdad International Airport is well beyond what we have come to expect in the decades-old tit-for-tat contest between America and Iran. While some in the Middle East will undoubtedly rejoice at the death of Soleimani, many more, even among his opponents, will be infuriated by it. And to make matters worse, Washington has effectively destroyed its relations with the Republic of Iraq by also taking the lives of four senior members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the militia umbrella body that has grown into a paramilitary wing of the Iraqi state, including the influential Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Of course, the irony here is that those who will greet the death of Qasem Soleimani with the greatest glee will be found among the ranks of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups who recognised the Quds Force commander as one of their most troublesome foes. And one that Donald Trump has now taken out of the picture.