No, Soleimani is not like the Archduke
On June 28, 1914, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Four years later, three empires were destroyed, a communist revolution had replaced one of them, and millions were dead as a result of the war that followed the archduke’s assassination. Thirty-one years later another war began because one side felt it had unfinished business it needed to settle.
After the United States conducted a drone strike to take out General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there has been fierce criticism of President Trump’s decision in some corners. The criticism has been that by “assassinating” Soleimani, Trump has risked setting off a Sarajevo-like chain of events that could lead to World War III. But, that’s nonsense. Here’s why.
The Archduke vs. Soleimani
The most glaring difference between the archduke and Soleimani is their title. Austria-Hungary in 1914 was a monarchy and the royal family is the embodiment of the state. Attacking the heir to the throne is an attack on the country. It is hard to come up with an example that would be analogous to the United States, because the symbol of the American state is not a person, but the Constitution. The institution of the presidency is not defined by Article II, not its occupant. Although the assassination of a U.S. president by a foreign power would still be a casus belli, the Iranian equivalent would either be either President Hassan Rouhani or Ayatollah Khamenei himself.
Soleimani on the other hand is a uniformed military man. The United States has designated the IRGC a terrorist organization which makes him a unique man. He is both a state actor and a terrorist. But whether you are more inclined to view him as a state actor or a terrorist, the point is that he’s not a civilian politician. He was directing attacks against U.S. persons and interests in a country that had invited U.S. troops with the use of non-state proxies/terrorist organizations to give his country plausible deniability. He’s a battlefield combatant and battlefield combatants are not “assassinated.”
It is true that the political structures in Iran and the U.S. are different and he wielded more power and thus more important than an American general or admiral. In the U.S. there are the elected civilians and the military. In Iran there are the clerics, the civilian politicians, the conventional military, and then the IRGC. But, differences in political systems does not render him a non-combatant when he was in theater giving battlefield commands.
The United States and Iran vs. Austria-Hungary and Serbia
Another difference is between the two sets of foes. Neither the United States nor Iran want a war. Iran does not want it because they can’t afford one with their economy in the gutter and because whether ends with Uncle Sam ending up in Tehran or being overthrown by their own people, it is a war they would almost certainty lose. They also know that there’s an American election later this year that could radically change the situation.
The U.S. does not want one because, while we may win in the end, the cost in getting there has the very real potential to be enormous. In addition to the human cost, the financial cost is something the U.S., with a $23 trillion debt, cannot ignore. Even after toppling the regime, the post-war rebuilding stage would force the U.S. to engage in more unwanted nation building and tie down personnel and other assets where they might be needed elsewhere.
Even if the United States did want a war, it would require the mass movement of land, sea, and air forces to the combat theater. That process would take months are there is no way it could be done secretly.
Austria-Hungary on the other hand wanted war, as evident by their ultimatum that they knew Serbia wouldn’t accept, because accepting it would render Serbia independent in name only. Neither did Russia or Germany do much, if anything, to bring their allies back from the brink. In fact, they did just the opposite.
Today, you don’t see any third countries urging the U.S. and Iran to get into a war. The Europeans don’t want it, nor do any of the United States’ regional allies because such a war will put them in the line of fire as well. The Russians don’t want to see a war and the Chinese won’t want to see their oil supply cut off.
A Better Analogy
It is hard to come up with a good analogy for the current situation, mostly because it is still ongoing. That said, a better analogy than Sarajevo in 1914 would be Operation Praying Mantis.
The benefits of this analogy are that the actors are the same: the United States and Iran and that the background of April 18, 1988 was the fate of Iraq. The United States found itself as an ally of convenience with Saddam Hussein to prevent the spread of Iranian influence to Iraq.
When the Iran-Iraq War spilled out onto the sea, the United States, to make a long story short, fought an undeclared war with Iran at sea. There were some clashes and minings that led some to fear of escalation into all out war. On April 14, 1988 the frigate Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine, miraculously no Americans died, but it led President Reagan to order an Iranian frigate be sunk in response.
Since no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the U.S. got its frigate, but would also end up fighting the country’s largest naval battle since 1945. Iran’s losses that day convinced its leaders that it could not win the war and marked the beginning of the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The United States punched back and Iran had to back down.
Finally, on both occasions the U.S. refrained from attacking Iranian territory.
Of course, the big difference is that in 1988 Iran was at war with Iraq. It was struggling to fight one war in 1988, two would have been the definition of stupidity. Now it’s at war in Iraq, purportedly to fight ISIS. Iran was also more internationally isolated in 1988.
Time will tell what comes next for the U.S. and Iran. It is perfectly fine to have concerns about what comes next, but hysterical talk of World War III does not help. So far, Iran’s responses have been to continue to use their proxies and to try to fight using lawyers.
People should read more about the history of war, both the politics of it and the operational side of it. Not because, it glorifies war, but to expand their selection of analogies. Qasem Soleimani was a lot of things, analogous with Franz Ferdinand is not one of them.