Major General Qasem Soleimani was born in 1957 to a self-described “peasant” family in Kerman, the sunbaked province in southeastern Iran famed for its pistachios, rose water and hospitable inhabitants. Family debts forced him to leave school and earn a living as a construction worker at age 13. By his late teens, Soleimani was swept up in the country’s growing political fervor that culminated in one of the greatest geopolitical earthquakes of the past half-century: the 1979 revolution that replaced a U.S.-allied monarchy, led by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, with a viscerally anti-American theocracy, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Like young men from poor families throughout the world, Soleimani achieved upward mobility by joining the military. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was set up to supersede a national army Khomeini did not trust, and Soleimani cut his teeth as a soldier by helping to ruthlessly crush a rebellion of Kurds in northwest Iran, an estimated 10,000 of whom were killed. In 1981, he was among hundreds of thousands dispatched to counter the invasion of Iran by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Soleimani served mostly on the front line, distinguishing himself as a leader, then went on to confront drug traffickers in Kerman, the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and, reportedly, antigovernment protests inside Iran.
But Soleimani came into his own after the attacks of 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which flank Iran. Soleimani was tasked with sabotaging the American effort in Iraq. He did this initially by unleashing al-Qaeda members detained in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan–including several members of the bin Laden family and Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi–and allowing them to inflame Iraq. Then he trained Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and provided them extraordinarily lethal roadside booby traps that could penetrate any U.S. armor. The efforts took the lives of as many as 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, making Soleimani the single most hated adversary in the world for two generations of American military commanders.
So how did the man live to 62? A former senior U.S. intelligence official on Iran told me that when previous Administrations discussed assassinating Soleimani, two questions were usually contemplated: Does he deserve to die? And, is it worth the potential risks? The answer to the first question tended to be affirmative. The answer to the second was always inconclusive.
It still is. The five days after Soleimani’s assassination on Jan. 3, by a drone’s missile fired on the order of President Trump, were among the most fraught in the four decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran–and a bowel-shaking lesson in the speed with which full-blown war can appear all but inevitable, even when neither side actually wants one.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment … does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it!” Trump said, in a televised address that had the feel of stepping onto firm ground from a roller coaster.
Soleimani was killed early on a Friday. By Tuesday evening Washington time, Tehran was doing what it had never done before–firing a barrage of rockets from its own soil toward U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The time it took to count heads at the bases in Erbil and in the dusty reaches of Anbar province was excruciating for more than the families of service members stationed there.
American blood had emerged as Trump’s red line in dealing with Iran. A U.S. death presumably would require a lethal military reply from a President who had entered the spiral of escalation quite late, at the point where the circles narrow and everything moves very fast. For seven months, the normally bellicose U.S. President had declined to answer mounting attacks by Iran with reciprocal U.S. military action. “We had nobody in the drone,” Trump said, after Iran shot down a massive aircraft in June. “It would have made a big difference.” Holes blasted in oil tankers and an extraordinarily bold air assault on Saudi Arabia’s main oil facilities were received as Iran’s response to the economic sanctions Trump had imposed after unilaterally withdrawing from the international agreement that had arrested Iran’s nuclear program. If we cannot sell oil, Tehran was saying, no one else should be able to either. The Commander in Chief answered every attack with an eagerness to sit down and talk, just as he had with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Then, on Dec. 27, one of the militias handled by Soleimani killed an American contractor in a rocket barrage on a U.S. base in Iraq. Trump finally retaliated in kind, ordering U.S. warplanes to strike the militia two days later, killing 25. Iran responded by sending unarmed militiamen to swarm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where they burned a reception center. While Tehran has a long history of looting embassies, what infuriated Trump was comparisons with the overrunning, by Libyan militants in 2012, of the consular office in Benghazi, where the death of the U.S. ambassador became an obsession for some in the GOP, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The Anti-Benghazi!” Trump tweeted. When military advisers brought a menu of options to answer for the embassy vandalism, Trump stunned them by picking the killing of Soleimani. He later said the general was planning an “imminent” strike on U.S. interests, but has not elaborated.
But if the drone strike sped the U.S. and Iran down the road to war, both sides were looking frantically for an off-ramp. Iran seemingly showed the way, opening the path to de-escalation by the nature of its barrage.
Consider: before launching the strike, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced the retaliation would come from Iran’s own military, not proxy forces. What form did it take? Iran has weapons precise enough to elude a U.S. Patriot antimissile battery and take half of Saudi’s oil production offline, which it did on Sept. 14. Instead, Tehran sprayed ballistic rockets toward a vast air base and a token number toward the base in Erbil. Both facilities were braced for the attack. Several rockets failed to explode.
“All is well!” Trump tweeted a few hours later, radiating relief that no one was killed. The next morning, flanked by generals at the televised address, he announced “additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.”
Dangers remain. Still to be avenged is the militia leader killed along with Soleimani, a project more than one Iraq militia vowed to undertake. And Iran may not be finished. It has a long history of indirect covert action, from cyberattacks to terrorism. A former senior U.S. intelligence official said Iran may go further this time, potentially targeting current or former senior U.S. officials of similar rank to Soleimani. But the conflict Tehran favors least is the kind it appears to have avoided: conventional war. So it was no surprise that a couple of hours after launching the rockets, Tehran announced through its Foreign Minister that its retaliation had “concluded,” and headed for the casino door with its winnings.
Inside the Islamic Republic, the impact of Soleimani’s death will take years to appreciate. But its immediate effect was to throw the regime a lifeline. Only weeks earlier, an abrupt hike in gas prices brought into the streets not the elite and middle class who normally protest but tens of thousands of the working-class Iranians whom Khomeini called “the real owners of the revolution.” The regime answered by shutting down the Internet and killing as many as 1,500 people.
Soleimani’s assassination changed the subject. With his cocked eyebrow and soft personal manner, he had been among the most celebrated officials in the country, hailed by “moderates” and hard-liners alike. In life, he made Iran–however brutally, especially in Syria–the most consequential player in the Middle East, evoking the days of empire that may reside in the breasts of even many Iranians who despise the theocracy. (Persian General, read one of the posters rushed out.) And in death, he found the place akin to sainthood that prominent martyrdom holds in Shi’ite Islam, with its narrative that begins with the fatal 7th century defeat of the Prophet’s family in battle.
“Enemies felt humbled by the magnificence of the Iranian nation’s turnout for the funeral of Martyr Soleimani,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted Jan. 8, referring to crowds that included Tehran residents who had marched in 2009, in bloody antigovernment protests dubbed the Green Movement. The surge in unity does not change stubborn realities for Khamenei, 80. Iran’s economy remains in shambles, and its interference in the region still inspires protests in Lebanon and Iraq, where Soleimani directed militias and snipers to attack and kill demonstrators. But hostile attention from Washington is pure oxygen to a regime founded in opposition to it.
Since the 444-day hostage crisis that ended Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Iran has exulted in playing an outsize role in American domestic politics. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was tainted by the Iran-contra affair, George W. Bush’s presidency was demoralized by Iranian machinations in Iraq, and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program consumed the latter part of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Trump ran on an election platform of reducing America’s presence in the Middle East and avoiding “stupid wars.” But his erratic approach–provoking an escalation cycle while simultaneously making clear his aversion to conflict–only increased Tehran’s appetite for risk. And so thousands of U.S. troops have arrived in the region, every one as a buffer against an emboldened Iran. “On almost a daily basis, the military has had to react to the President’s decisions rather than plan for them,” says Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Defense Secretary and Republican Senator from Nebraska.
During the tense wait for Iran’s retaliation, Trump threatened to counter it by bombing a list of 52 targets in Iran, including cultural sites: a clear violation of international law. Though his Secretaries of State and Defense disavowed this threat, when reporters asked Trump to clarify he first doubled down, then two days later backed off. It is the Trump paradox: everything the President of the United States says must be taken seriously; nothing that Donald Trump says can be taken seriously.
With that paradox comes confusion over why the U.S. has forces in the Middle East. The best reason is to fight ISIS, which lost its caliphate but remains an insurgency, especially in the Iraqi countryside. Soleimani had served to both fuel and fight Sunni extremists, who prey on Shi’ites. But the backlash from his assassination spurred U.S. commanders to confine their forces to base; operations against ISIS were suspended.
Worse, outrage by Iraqi politicians brought calls to expel U.S. forces from the country, where the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion and thousands of lives. Expulsion makes no military sense: without U.S. airpower and special operators, ISIS would still hold much of Iraq. But after Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution ordering American forces out, the U.S. command in Iraq issued a letter suggesting it was packing its bags.
The letter was a mistake, but one that gladdened hearts in Tehran. Getting U.S. forces out of Iraq was, after all, the mission Khamenei gave Soleimani. His mandate expanded to the equivalent of a four-star general, CIA chief and Secretary of State. The Shi’ite foreign legion of 50,000 he cultivated projected Iranian power across the Middle East. And if his vocation made it unlikely Soleimani would die a natural death–Khamenei had called him a “living martyr”–his assassination may prove to be a force multiplier. Sensing that the notion of the U.S. leaving Iraq has now become credible, Iranian leaders are upping the stakes, calling for the expulsion of U.S. forces from the entire Middle East.
Fast forward to August 2020. Imagine news from Iran that a dozen U.S. sailors have been detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards navy. Instead of releasing them in a timely fashion, as it has in the past, Iran demands that all American troops first vacate the entire Middle East, an impossible request. Three months from Election Day, how does Trump react?
–With reporting by W.J. HENNIGAN/WASHINGTON
Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
This appears in the January 20, 2020 issue of TIME.