The US Department of Defense announced today that an American airstrike in Baghdad killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. This triggered a spike in oil and gold prices, and set World War III trending on Twitter.
Who was Soleimani? And why does he matter?
There are competing perspectives, with sharply differing points of view.
The US believes Soleimani was a terrorist, akin to Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of ISIS. But even within the US, there is acknowledgement of Soleimani’s status and role in Iran.
Soleimani, who masterminded Iran’s regional strategy for more than 20 years, was described by Middle East watchers as “like a Middle East viceroy.” He led Iranian overseas operations, building military and political alliances that allowed Iran to wield greater clout in the region. Last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awarded Soleimani the country’s highest military honor. Khamenei vowed “severe retaliation” for Soleimani’s killing.
Veteran diplomats said the US assassination of Soleimani could be described as the equivalent of a foreign force taking out the current head of US Central Command. Indeed, Soleimani’s status in his country may be more accurately likened to that of General Colin Powell, one of America’s most highly regarded military strategists in modern times.
Killing #Soleimani isn’t like killing bin Laden, who had masterminded the worst terrorist attack against America. Soleimani was a competitor, who was highly effective in fighting ISIS as well as American interests. Assassinating him seems like a step back to a more savage past.
— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) January 3, 2020
Soleimani has been described as “the equivalent of the J.S.O.C. commander, the C.I.A. director and Iran’s real foreign minister,” in a reference to the acronym for the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command.
Even so, the Pentagon said “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It pointed out that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is a “US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” and added that Soleimani and his Quds Force “were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Republican senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of president Donald Trump’s, said that Soleimani “had American blood on his hands.” Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador, said Soleimani was “an arch terrorist.” Leading members of the Democratic Party didn’t disagree about Soleimani’s record, but questioned the wisdom of taking him out.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, said that “Soleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and world is better off without him.” Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, said “no American will mourn Solemani’s passing.” He added, however, that taking his life would probably have significant consequences: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”
Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.
More stories from Quartz: