Iranian commander killed—five things to know

A United States drone struck and killed a powerful Iranian military commander at an Iraqi airport, bringing vows of retribution from Iran and threatening to plunge the region into chaos. An expert on Iran shares her thoughts on the attack.

Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani
Major General Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force

A United States drone struck and killed a powerful Iranian military commander at an Iraqi airport on Friday. The death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps brought quick vows of retribution from Iran and threatened to plunge the region into deeper chaos. Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and Middle East expert with a focus on Iran, shares five takeaways from the attack.

The strike was akin to declaration of war:

The United States wanted to create a moment of chaos for Iran and to deliver an unequivocal and forceful message. This was a very high-profile, prominent general, and his death has brought tensions between the two countries to a boiling point. Soft targets are increasingly vulnerable now, not only in the Persian Gulf but also in Africa and elsewhere. American lives in the region are likely more insecure as a result. The world teeters on the edge of uncertainty and insecurity as a result of what has happened. It’s impossible to anticipate Iran’s precise plans for reprisal, which is unnerving.

Attack could bring an escalation of violence in the region:

It saddens me enormously to see the escalation of violence, which will likely spill into other countries in the region. I’m gravely concerned about a broader regional war, and, regrettably, we don’t seem to be moving in the direction of peaceful resolution of differences. It’s hard to imagine how a peaceful path forward can come out of this.

Suleimani’s death is a blow to Iran:

Suleimani had a reputation for being as ruthless as he was skillful, with a capable military mind. He was someone who trained troops well, fought ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, inspired fear, and shaped the region over the decades. Losing him is a major blow to Iran. I find it peculiar, though, that the general himself wouldn’t think he would be a target. There are a lot of unanswered questions here.


All the actors in the region must accept some degree of responsibility for the escalation of violence in the Middle East. Iran has made some terrible mistakes, as have the other states neighboring it. Denying these realities, or engaging in selective finger-pointing, will lead to policies that breed further misunderstanding. Violence will only bring more violence.

Looking at history could help build a peaceful future:

As a historian, I have a longue durée perspective of the situation. It’s important to address historical grievances in order to imagine and to realize a peaceful future. My hope has always been to call a regional convention, where people representing different interest groups can sit around a table and try to iron out differences. It’s not just about the future of Iran. In actuality, the future of the Middle East is at stake. There has to be a way to broaden the conversations so thorny issues can be addressed and resolved collectively. We can learn a lot from the way things happened in the past, like the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which attempted to reconfigure the Balkans. Although violence in the Balkans persisted for another century, some semblance of coexistence has now been achieved. We need to end the cycle of hate and hostility in the Middle East. History is on our side, if we choose to read it and to learn from it.

Kashani-Sabet is working on a book about America’s historical relationship with Iran and the Islamic world titled “Between Heroes and Hostages: Key Moments in the History of US-Iranian Relations.” She is an expert on ethnic, border, and political conflicts in the Middle East.