Causes of Qasem Soleimani’s Assassination

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On March 11, 1957, Iranian military officer Qasem Soleimani was assassinated during a deliberate drone strike (Congressional Research Service, 2020). The event immediately attracted media attention and controversy around the world. Unlike usual assassinations, where the culprit remains unknown or debated, Soleimani’s assassination was publicly acknowledged by President Trump. Furthermore, he claimed responsibility for the assassination and framed his decision as a necessary measure to prevent a war (Statement by the Department of Defense, 2020). Trump was no stranger to immediate and often emotional displays of power. Still, an open assassination of one of the most influential military figures in the Middle East is a radical decision that Trump could not have made without the influence of others. Understanding the significance of Qasem Soleimani is essential in ascertaining the most likely culprits behind his assassination.

Qasem Soleimani was an extremely known public figure in Iran. At the time of his death, he was Iran’s most authoritative military commander. Soleimani was a military tactician whose prominence had been growing since the Iran-Iraq war until their assassination. He was a particularly appealing figure to Iranians because his policy strengthened the sphere of influence of Iran. Probably the most notable Soleimani achievement was the empowerment of Shia militias in the Levant – territories on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Under Soleimani’s command, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militant group, reinforced its hold over Lebanon, while Shia militants organized into a credible force in Iraq and Yemen (Kazimi, 2020). At the same time, Soleimani coordinated al-Assad’s offensive strategies in Syria and played an essential role in the fight against ISIS. Overall, Soleimani had a large positive impact on the quality of Iran’s forces, which earned him a positive reputation at home.

At the same time, Soleimani possessed a negative reputation in the Western world. Specifically, the US Government viewed him as a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops. In the meantime, Iran was (and still is) pursuing a policy of researching nuclear technology, which might have encompassed the development of nuclear weapons. A nuclear power status would give Tehran considerable leverage against Washington. In 2015, the Iran nuclear deal was signed between Iran, the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany. The goal of the deal was to ensure the cessation of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions. However, as Trump became president, his anti-Iran rhetoric led to the withdrawal of the US from the Iran deal. Subsequently, the US increased sanction pressure on Iran, which led to the assumed breaches of the nuclear deal on the Iranian part (US-Iran standoff: A timeline of key events). The following months witnessed numerous escalations from both Iran’s forces that attacked foreign tankers and US drones and from the US, which increased its military presence.

As such, by January 2020, US-Iran relations were already tense. Regardless of whether Soleimani planned an attack on Americans or not, he was presented as a highly negative figure in the US media. It should also be noted that previously the US had already executed terrorists – as was the case with Osama bin Laden. It should be noted that Osama was almost universally condemned and pursued by the military forces of numerous countries. The difference in Soleimani’s case was that he was also a statesman of a sovereign state. Furthermore, he also held the official military position in Iran’s forces – his rank was Major General. In essence, “by killing Soleimani, the US violated the territory of another state and assassinated a legitimate statesman, thus blatantly disrespecting another state’s sovereignty” (Binkaya, 2020, p. 162). However biased against Iran Trump was, this decision had to be made under the strong influence of American stakeholders.

Influence on President Trump

There are several reasons permeating Trump’s decision to order the killing. First, Soleimani himself attracted unfavorable publicity among American policymakers. Most notably, he was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) – an organization that was designated as a terrorist by the US. The reason why this person, in particular, worried the US lies in his exceptional ability to conduct military operations in the Middle East, specifically in Syria. Congressional Research Service (2020) points to analysts who refer to him as “the military center of gravity of Iran’s regional hegemonic efforts” and “an operational and organization genius” (p. 2). In essence, many people believed that taking Soleimani out of the equation would severely weaken Iran and reduce its military and power projection capabilities.

The primary excuse for the drone strike was the presumed immediate threat. On the night of the assassination, the US Department of Defense stated that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region” (Statement by the Department of Defense, 2020, para. 2). The Department also blamed him for multiple attacks on Iraqi and American personnel, which transpired months before the US retaliation. The most recent attack happened on December 27, which targeted the US Embassy in Baghdad. Even though Iran publicly denied participation in the attack, it did not dissuade the US from retaliatory measures. As a result, the attacks that had already transpired, combined with the intelligence suggesting further escalation, definitely influenced Trump’s decision.

Another likely driver behind Trump’s decision to order the killing was the desire to win public support. 2020 was the election year, which always forces presidential hopefuls to pander to potential voters. Subsequently, a significant event was needed to boost the public image of Donald Trump. Using the excuse of national security is the most effective way to capitalize on fear, and the US media ensured that Iran had sufficient negative publicity in the eyes if the Americans. A successful strike against an adversarial foreign power is an assured way of acquiring public support.

Therefore, targeting Iran would be the most logical way for Trump to demonstrate his force. Even though China was probably a greater concern for him, he could not have acted against any Chinese officials with impunity. On the other hand, Iran was a safer bet, considering the overall Islamophobia in America and the negative media portrayal of Iran in the American media. Combined with the terrorist insignia attached to important Iran organizations, Iran’s provocations provided Trump with a solid justification for his actions. Qasem Soleimani was the most convenient person in Iran, who could be blamed for terrorism and the threat to Americans simultaneously. Soleimani’s own statements did not alleviate the situation, as he taunted the US in public speeches (Reuters Staff, 2018). In essence, Trump was trying to replicate the success of Osama bin Laden’s elimination on a large scale. Whether he succeeded in gaining voters’ support or not, the necessity to please the voters definitely influenced Trump to give the order.

Role of Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo

Even though the system of balances and checks prevents power abuse, individuals still play a significant role in US decision-making. Two figures played a prominent role in American decision-making surrounding Soleimani – Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo. Both were ardent proponents of the idea that the US should take a more hardline approach with Iran. Both were alleged to have pushed Trump into ordering the drone strike (Posner, 2020). Subsequently, it is important to understand what motivated Pence and Pompeo.

Understanding Pence’s and Pompeo’s angles becomes easier when their political affiliations are taken into account. Both are associated with Christians United for Israel (CUFI) – an organization that promotes Israel’s interests. CUFI has numerous agendas, one of which is undermining Iran. It also follows Israel’s overall policy of ensuring alliances with major powers. The urgent need for strong allies stems from Israel’s geography. Being a relatively small country with limited resources, Israel is vulnerable to attacks from all sides. Historically, opposing forces of Egypt and Syria took advantage of Israel’s small space. Although Israel managed to prevail, it is still a nation surrounded by countries with adversarial intentions.

Therefore, Israel has to turn to its allies for help and support. Historically, Washington has been such an ally due to the US interests in controlling the Middle East. However, providing military help to Israel is expensive, as it requires hundreds of thousands of American troops. Even though Washington can afford such expenses, it is unlikely to deploy so many forces. The reason for the US’ reluctance lies in the unpopularity of the US presence in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan at home. Combined with the failure to overthrow the Syrian government, fewer US policymakers are willing to commit more efforts to stabilize the Middle East. This is why Israel-backed initiatives, such as CUFI, are important. By lobbying Israel’s interests in the US, such organizations improve the chances that the US will adopt a more Israel-friendly approach.

Mike Pence held the position of Vice-President in Trump’s Administration. Usually, Vice-Presidents are not notable in the public perception compared to Presidents. However, people who hold this position are important because they have large sway over the incumbent president. It is also common knowledge that Mike Pence is a Christian. He attended CUFI’s 12th annual summit, during which he assured the organization of the US commitment to the alliance with Israel (Mike Pence to CUFI, n.d.). An event that highlights Pence’s allegiance even better was that “in 2014 CUFI paid for then-Governor Pence and his wife to travel to Israel to celebrate Christmas” (Posner, 2020, para. 8). Pence uses his Christian faith as a political tool to amass support from Israelis, but it also forces Trump to take Israel-friendly actions.

Mike Pompeo served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and later Secretary of State. Subsequently, he had access to intelligence reports that informed him of any changes on Iran’s part. A justification used by Trump was that “Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel” (Cameron & Cooper, 2020, para. 5). The same rhetoric was used by Pompeo, who talked about “imminent threats to American lives” (Cameron & Cooper, 2020, para. 6). It should be noted that Pompeo had already criticized the US’ response to foreign attacks on it diplomats, most notably when the US ambassador to Libya was killed in 2012 (Hudson et al., 2020). He also let the audiences know that the US was planning an asymmetrical response to Iran’s proxy forces in Arab countries even before the attack on the American embassy (Hudson et al., 2020). It is reasonable to suggest that Pompeo had contemplated the assassination for some time when the attack on the embassy transpired.

It should be evident that CUFI was clearly successful at influencing American policymakers. It is peculiar that for all his political bravado, Trump, in reality, pursued a more restrained course of action with Iran compared to CUFI supporters. CUFI followers have been advocating for military actions against Tehran since CUFI’s founding in 2006 (Posner, 2020). This rhetoric made them natural allies with Trump, who also believed that the Iran deal was detrimental to US interests. Alliance with CUFI was an effective trade-off for Trump – he acquired a substantial voter base, while CUFI could influence the decision-making of the US presidency. Most notably, the success of its influence became apparent when Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights (Turak, 2019). In retrospect, it might be surprising that Trump did not act sooner on General Soleimani.

Influence of White Evangelicalism

The analysis of Trump’s cabinet members underscores an important theme – religion. Particularly evangelicals are an especially important group who could influence US decision-making during Trump’s presidency. According to Pew Research Center (2018), “white evangelical Protestants, who constituted one out of every five voters, consistently have been among the strongest supporters of Republican candidates and supported Trump by a 77% to 16% margin” (para. 10). Considering that the number of white evangelicals grew during Trump’s presidency, it can be argued that his actions appealed to this voter group (Burge, 2021). Clearly, Trump targeted white evangelicals as a major support group.

Evangelicalism itself is a Protestant movement that promotes conservative values. Although both the Democratic and the Republican Parties have evangelical supporters, there is a definitely higher quantity of them among the Republicans. Burge (2021) writes that “in the 1970s, only 40 percent of white weekly churchgoing evangelicals identified as Republicans; in the most recent data, that number has risen to an all-time high of 70 percent” (para. 6). During the 2016 elections, 81% of conservative evangelicals voted for Trump, which constituted 26% of the overall voters (Berlinerblau, 2018). This forces Trump to consider the opinions of white evangelicals in every regard.

However, a person’s belonging to white evangelicalism does not presuppose anti-Iran sentiment. It is possible to suggest that identifying as a white evangelical does determine one’s attitude toward Israel. Inbari et al. (2020) argue that “evangelical support for Israel is driven by respondents’ beliefs rooted in evangelical Christian theology and by their feeling of cultural and religious affinity with Jews” (p. 1). Furthermore, Pence himself linked the US support of Israel to Christianity and God (Mike Pence to CUFI, n.d.). Whether or not it he used religion as a political tool, it cannot be denied that the public perception of Israel by white evangelicals is positive.

As for the animosity toward Iran, it is most likely that such sentiment is cultivated by pro-Israel organizations, such as CUFI. John Hagee, the founder of this organization, is a known televangelist. It was he who pushed for stricter military action against Iran, thus determining the overall anti-Iran sentiment of CUFI (Posner, 2020). It is also noteworthy that evangelicals always had a distinct enemy to unite Christians against. Inbari et al. (2020) write that in the Middle East, the Soviet Union was an enemy, which was replaced by Iran. This is an effective strategy to gather political and ideological support, but it also drives the President to acknowledge the concerns of white evangelicals and act on them. In essence, even if he were not willing to kill Soleimani, he would have risked losing his electorate for not taking action against Iran.


Altogether, four main points can be made regarding Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani. First, the assassination was a continuation of the larger Iran-US relationship dynamic. By continuously pursuing nuclear technologies, Iran attracted extensive American criticism. It exacerbated the already tense relations, which have been in this state since Islamic Revolution. The 2015 Iran deal eased the tensions, yet it was effectively nullified by Trump’s withdrawal and the policy of maximum pressure on Iran. At the same time, Iran responded with military attacks and provocations. By 2020, the US retaliation was inevitable, even though the extent of Trump’s response was not evident.

Second, Trump’s political support was based on a large segment of voters with the anti-Iran sentiment. 2020 was the election year, which pressures candidates to win the support of voters. A large proportion of Trump’s electorate was comprised of white evangelicals, who positively viewed Israel. As Iran is an infamous opponent of Iran in the Middle East, many white evangelicals also perceived Tehran as an enemy. Any decisive action targeting Iran would be met with an appraisal from white evangelicals because it would strengthen Israel’s position in the Middle East.

Third, Israel’s interests were heavily lobbied in Trump’s cabinet, which also pushed him to act against Iran. As both Vice President Pence and Secretary of State, Pompeo were evangelicals with close ties to Israel-backed Christianity United for Israel, the President had no choice but to consider Israel’s agenda. CUFI, Pence, and Pompeo had all consistently influenced Trump to target Iran. Combined with Trump’s own anti-Iran sentiment, a military response to Iran was only a matter of time.

Fourth, General Soleimani was the most convenient target for the US since it allowed Trump to accomplish numerous objectives with minimal risk. As Soleimani was labeled as a terrorist in the US, his elimination could easily be justified by national security reasons. Soleimani was instrumental in numerous of Iran’s foreign initiatives, which pinpointed him as the reason for Iran’s successes. His removal would invariably weaken Iran regardless of its potential response. Finally, Soleimani never concealed his anti-American rhetoric, which was openly expressed in public. As such, killing him would net more positive benefits for Trump than risks. Although the assassination definitely impacted the Iranian policy of the US, killing the Iranian general was actually directed at internal American affairs, thus ensuring the support of white evangelicals for Trump in the coming elections.


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DemoEssays. "Causes of Qasem Soleimani’s Assassination." February 26, 2023.