Each year, about half-a-million people are murdered worldwide. Naturally, these deaths have devastating effects on the victims’ families and loved ones. But there are also killings that reach far beyond friends and family and change the world. These transcendental murders can turn out to be very expensive. The iconic case is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. His death set off a chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I and the deaths of 40 million people.
Tehran does not usually respond immediately to the aggressions of its adversaries but rather waits to attack them where and when it is least expected
Recently, there have been other costly murders such as that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and that of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani on January 3, 2020. Although the victims could not be more different, they have something important in common: both were killed by a government that ordered their execution. The Saudi journalist was killed by his own government while the killing of the Iranian general was ordered by the president of the United States.
While Donald Trump is celebrating his decision to eliminate the murderous Iranian military leader, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, denies any involvement in Khashoggi”s killing, a murder that occurred at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The prince blames rogue members of his secret service, some of whom have already been accused, tried and sentenced to death. However, investigators from both the Turkish government and The New York Times have concluded that the abduction, murder and dismemberment of the journalist were carried out by agents close to Mohammed bin Salman. The agents traveled to Istanbul for that very purpose. The 34-year-old prince clearly underestimated the consequences that the killing would have on his global reputation, and that of his country. Jamal Khashoggi has already become a symbol of the extreme dangers faced by journalists who challenge authoritarian regimes willing to kill their critics.
While it is too early to know the full extent of the fallout from General Suleimani’s assassination, there is no doubt that it will be significant. So far Tehran’s reaction has been moderate, and both the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Trump have shown signs that they want to avoid a military escalation. But it is risky to assume that the Iranian response will remain limited to the launching of 11 missiles at two bases in Iraq. That attack caused neither casualties nor major material damage.
History shows that, more often than not, great powers’ reactions to attacks have more lasting consequences than the attacks themselves
Tehran does not usually respond immediately to the aggressions of its adversaries but rather waits to attack them where and when it is least expected. For example, in 2012 an important Iranian scientist whose work has significant military uses, was assassinated. The Iranian government accused Israel. Some time later, Israeli diplomats were attacked in Georgia, India and Thailand, countries that had nothing to do with the murder of the Iranian scientist. In 1992, Israel killed a Hezbollah leader. Two months later, an Iranian-sponsored suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires, causing 29 deaths.
The repercussions of the decision to assassinate Suleimani will be many and varied, but two are already quite clear. The first is that the US military’s presence in the Middle East will expand, at least in the near term. “Bringing soldiers home” was an electoral promise and is still a common slogan used by President Trump. This promise, which was already proving difficult to fulfill, now looks out of reach. The second effect of the murder of Suleimani is that Iran’s nuclear agreement, in which the Islamic Republic promised to curtail its nuclear program, is dead. In fact, Iran has already announced that it will begin enriching uranium beyond the agreed limits, which it had not done since signing the 2015 agreement.
The assassination of the Iranian general also reinforces an important – albeit unintended – lesson to America’s enemies: that they must have nuclear weapons in order to defend themselves. They know that Trump would never try what he did in Iran in North Korea, for example. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has the ability to respond with a nuclear strike. This is just an example of how the murder of Suleimani could spur nuclear proliferation, something that endangers us all.
History shows that, more often than not, great powers’ reactions to attacks have more lasting consequences than the attacks themselves. For example, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US cost Al Qaeda an estimated $500,000 and caused around 3,000 deaths. Washington’s reaction to these terrorist attacks triggered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the longest in US history – resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian and military deaths in different countries and causing untold economic costs.
Eliminating Suleimani, undoubtedly a dangerous terrorist, will surely bring some benefits to the United States and its allies. But it will also have significant costs, many of them unexpected and, for now, invisible. Suleimani’s murder has the potential of becoming very expensive.