Was Soleimani overrated?

Thomas Friedman calls the late Gen. Soleimani “Iran’s most overrated warrior.” He also calls Soleimani “possibly the dumbest man in Iran.”

Friedman explains:

In 2015, the United States and the major European powers agreed to lift virtually all their sanctions on Iran, many dating back to 1979, in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program for a mere 15 years, but still maintaining the right to have a peaceful nuclear program. It was a great deal for Iran. Its economy grew by over 12 percent the next year. And what did Suleimani do with that windfall?

He and Iran’s supreme leader launched an aggressive regional imperial project that made Iran and its proxies the de facto controlling power in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana. This freaked out U.S. allies in the Sunni Arab world and Israel — and they pressed the Trump administration to respond. Trump himself was eager to tear up any treaty forged by President Obama, so he exited the nuclear deal and imposed oil sanctions on Iran that have now shrunk the Iranian economy by almost 10 percent and sent unemployment over 16 percent.

All that for the pleasure of saying that Tehran can call the shots in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana.

Friedman might well be right in saying that the Iranian regime’s position is parlous, and that it would have been better advised to accept all of the favors President Obama so generously conferred on Iran and not pushed the envelope. However, the regime’s decision to push it hard doesn’t make Soleimani an overrated warrior. Napoleon wasn’t an overrated warrior just because his ambitions caused him to overreach.

Friedman is missing the same point Obama missed. Iran is a revolutionary force whose regime aspires, above all, to spread its influence and, in the case of at some Iranian leaders, promote its religious orthodoxy throughout the Middle East, while destroying Israel and making life miserable for the U.S. Accomplishing these things takes precedence over 12 percent domestic growth in the economy.

Friedman might find it ridiculous that the mullahs and Soleimani put a priority on calling the shots in Beirut, Damascus and other capitals — just as he might have found it ridiculous that Napoleon wanted to call them in Rome, Cairo, Madrid, and even Moscow. But this aspiration didn’t make Soleimani overrated or dumb. It made him an ideologue — an extremely dangerous and rather successful one.

Friedman quotes with approval this passage from an article by Ray Takeyh:

Soleimani began expanding Iran’s imperial frontiers. For the first time in its history, Iran became a true regional power, stretching its influence from the banks of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Soleimani understood that Persians would not be willing to die in distant battlefields for the sake of Arabs, so he focused on recruiting Arabs and Afghans as an auxiliary force. He often boasted that he could create a militia in little time and deploy it against Iran’s various enemies.”

It was precisely those Soleimani proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen — that created pro-Iranian Shiite states-within-states in all of these countries.

That doesn’t sound dumb to me.

It’s true that Soleimani’s project has led to an anti-Iran backlash in the region. Friedman deserves credit for pointing to recent manifestations of that backlash in Iraq and Lebanon — developments to which the mainstream media hasn’t devoted sufficient attention.

Successful imperialists typically generate a backlash. We don’t know yet how consequential the backlash will be in Iran’s case. Perhaps the killing of Soleimani will give it impetus. In any case, it will deprive Iran of the man arguably most able to quell it.

In critiquing Friedman’s column, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s void of insight. Actually, I recommend reading the whole thing.

I particularly liked these two paragraphs near the end:

Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilization and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers — except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders. The very fact that Suleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime, and how it has wasted the lives of two generations of Iranians by looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. . . .

[In] the coming days there will be noisy protests in Iran, the burning of American flags and much crying for the “martyr.” The morning after the morning after? There will be a thousand quiet conversations inside Iran that won’t get reported. They will be about the travesty that is their own government and how it has squandered so much of Iran’s wealth and talent on an imperial project that has made Iran hated in the Middle East.

Let’s hope that these conversations eventually add up to more than just talk.

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