Niall Ferguson is a Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.
My response to the news that U.S. forces had assassinated General Qassem Soleimani was: “Good riddance. Now what?” No tears should be shed for Gen. Soleimani. As the mastermind of Iran’s numerous proxy wars beyond its borders, he had the blood of countless people on his hands, including hundreds of American and coalition soldiers killed by the Shia militias he helped to train and finance. Second only to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in personal power, Gen. Soleimani had come to personify the ruthless, bloodthirsty spirit of the regime in Tehran.
But what will the consequences be of his assassination? Let us begin by dismissing that perennial, “Oh no! Reckless Donald Trump has lit the fuse for the Third World War.” At a time such as this, commentators in need of a facile historical analogy inevitably reach for the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June, 1914, generally regarded as the catalyst for the First World War.
But Gen. Soleimani was no Ferdinand. First, it was Bosnian-Serb terrorists who carried out the hit on the legitimate heir to the august Austro-Hungarian imperial throne. Gen. Soleimani’s career as a sponsor of terrorism puts him closer to the Sarajevo assassin, Gavrilo Princip, than to his victim.
Second, the Middle East in January, 2020, is not Europe in June, 1914. The great powers then were quite evenly matched; each made the mistake of thinking that it might gain from a full-scale European war. Today, Iran’s leaders are under no illusions. They cannot risk a war with the vastly superior United States.
A better analogy might be with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, “the man with the iron heart” (Hitler’s grim accolade), the founding head of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), the creator of the genocidal Einsatzgruppen and the brutal tyrant of the dismembered Czechoslovakia, who was fatally wounded by British-trained agents of the Czech government-in-exile in May, 1942.
The British government’s decision to train and send Heydrich’s killers was made in the full knowledge that there would be harsh reprisals. There were. In the (erroneous) belief that the assassins were connected to the villages of Lidice and Lezaky, Hitler ordered the execution of all their male inhabitants older than 16, as well as all the women of Lezaky. In all, more than 1,300 Czechs perished in this orgy of vengeance.
In much the same way, Mr. Trump and his advisers knew when they took the decision to launch an air strike on Gen. Soleimani that there would be reprisals. There will be. On Friday, Mr. Khamenei tweeted the hashtag #SevereRevenge. Stand by for attacks by Iranian forces and their Shia proxies on U.S. personnel, as well as against U.S. allies, all over the Middle East.
Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, in response to Abraham Lincoln’s murder, that “assassination has never changed the history of the world." He was wrong. As Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken show in my favourite economics paper on this subject – which covers all 298 assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004 – successful assassinations tend to increase the intensity of small-scale conflicts. But when an autocrat is killed, the probability of a transition to democracy rises.
The downside of killing Gen. Soleimani is that Iraq will now blow up. Freed from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny by the U.S. invasion of 2003, it is a democracy with only limited U.S. security support. Iranian penetration of Shia militias and political parties means that it is dangerously close to becoming a vassal of Tehran. Significantly, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, has condemned the U.S. strike against Gen. Soleimani. The danger is a return to civil war.
Iran is in dire economic straits, largely because of U.S. sanctions, which the Trump administration tightened last year. The country’s beleaguered rulers gambled that they could force the U.S. to relax sanctions by exerting force, in the belief that Mr. Trump would not risk war in an election year. Wrong. The U.S. may now face pandemonium in Iraq, but Iran will not necessarily be the beneficiary.
Aside from Qatar, the Arab states are uniformly hostile to Tehran. Not only are the Saudis still smarting from Iran’s attack on their oil facilities in September; they also bitterly resent Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
As for the other main players in the region – Russia and Turkey – they are increasingly antagonistic to Iran. With the Syrian civil war all but over, Moscow is intent on squeezing out the Iranians.
Civil war in Iraq? Quite possibly. A Third World War? Forget about it. The unanswered question is what, if anything, can be done to reverse the biggest trend of the past decade, which has been for Russia – not Iran – to take over from the U.S. as the Middle East’s power broker. The assassination of Gen. Soleimani changes many things, but it doesn’t change that.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London.