Almost seven months after the January 3 American military operation that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, it’s worth remembering that the operation prompted prominent Democrats and members of the press to breathlessly warn that the United States was on the “brink of war” with Iran.
A Washington Post piece published on the day of Soleimani’s death as “analysis” rather than opinion asserted in its lede that war was imminent. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) tweeted that President Trump “is leading us to the brink of war because he believes it will help his re-election.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), then a candidate for president, initially tempered her alarm at Trump’s “reckless” decision with the admission that Soleimani was “a murderer.” After receiving criticism for this from the left, she condemned the operation as the “assassination” of a “high ranking government official” and opined that it would “increase the likelihood of war.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, published a number of articles in the days after Soleimani’s death that fretted about, rather than considered, its implications. Among these implications, according to the Times, was the solidification of the Iranian public’s support of the current regime. Ever since the 2009 Green Revolution, the popular movement sparked when the Iranian government rigged a presidential election against genuine reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iranians have frequently taken to the streets to protest the social and economic devastation wrought by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime. Yet the Times insisted that Soleimani’s death had united “Young and old. Rich and poor. Hard-liner and reformer” — just a week before Iranians once again erupted in righteous anger at their leadership class and the government responded with a crackdown that killed hundreds.
Another concern of reporters at the Times was that U.S. troops would be expelled from Iraq because the operation that ended Soleimani’s death occurred on Iraqi soil. The Iraqi parliament voted for such an expulsion. The country would take “whatever legal actions were necessary to compel a United States departure over the coming months,” the Times breathlessly reported. “Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi drafted the language and submitted the bill approved by Parliament on Sunday, leaving little doubt about his support.” Unmentioned was the fact that Mahdi was a lame duck at the time; he had announced plans to resign after fall 2019 protests against both him and his party for acting as stooges of Soleimani and the Iranians.
Needless to say, seven months later, American troops remain in Iraq, and no war between the U.S. and Iran has materialized. It should have been obvious to anyone paying attention at the time that a war was in neither Trump’s nor Khamenei’s interest, and in fact would have been politically suicidal for both.
So why were so many invested in depicting the Soleimani killing as a cataclysmic mistake? To answer, we’ll have to recall how the Obama administration sold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, to the public.
The JCPOA returned more than $100 billion in frozen assets to the Iranians and lifted a comprehensive slate of American economic sanctions. In return, the Iranians pledged to adhere to certain limits on the number of centrifuges they would install for uranium enrichment, and the amount of enriched uranium they could hold on to. Critics of the deal pointed out that the sunset provisions on the Iranians’ obligations would at best delay Iran’s efforts to develop a successful nuclear-weapons program, and that to sign on to a subpar deal while relieving the regime of the economic pressure imposed by sanctions would be to forfeit significant leverage.
The Obama administration responded to these critiques by establishing several narratives and creating an echo chamber in the media to push them. In July 2015, President Obama, speaking of the problem of Iran’s nuclear-weapons pursuit, bluntly told reporters that “either it’s resolved diplomatically through negotiations, or it’s resolved through force, through war.” This was a false choice even at the time, but it quickly became part of the administration’s message. A month later, Obama again claimed that “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” His fans in the media took the hint. Nicholas Kristof defended the argument by nonsensically pointing to the Iraq War in his New York Times column, while the Times’ Editorial Board issued an endorsement of the JCPOA entitled “An Iran Nuclear Deal That Reduces the Chance of War.” To justify the considerable concessions of the JCPOA, the Obama administration needed to present a scary, stark alternative, and chose the scariest, starkest one possible: war.
Trump did not withdraw from the deal immediately upon taking office, but he did send strong signals that his administration would be much less conciliatory toward the Iranian regime, and by mid 2018 he was ready to take the leap and exit the deal. This meant the reimposition of myriad sanctions and a much more aggressive posture toward Iranian initiatives across the Middle East, culminating in the operation that eliminated Soleimani, which presented a test of Obama’s claim: Was the choice before the American people really either the JCPOA or war? Surely, if war was inevitable, the “assassination” of a “high ranking government official” would be enough to light the powder keg. But of course, war wasn’t inevitable. Killing Soleimani merely made the Quds Force less effective and sent Iran a message that terrorist attacks perpetrated against U.S. forces would not go unanswered.
That partisans will push their preferred narratives is a given. That the press has an investment in partisans with a “D” next to their name should surprise no one. But the extent of bias present in supposedly “straight” reporting on Iran over the past five years or so merits special attention. The press did not stop at propagating President Obama’s false choice; it carried the logic forward years later at the expense of providing the public with an accurate picture of what was happening in the aftermath of a monumental U.S. military operation. It would be nice to believe that the public would hold the media accountable for this malpractice, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.