LEILA FADEL, HOST:
We've been talking about the targeted assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Iran's regional security policy. The implications of his killing are roiling the region. In Iran, mourners filled the streets on Friday.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).
FADEL: That was the sound of people chanting in Kerman, Soleimani's hometown.
But who is this man? And why is his killing raising fears of open war between a global superpower, the United States, and a regional one, Iran? To help us understand, Robert Ford joins us. He served as a diplomat in Iraq for five years and later as ambassador to Syria. He's currently a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Ford, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT FORD: My pleasure. Nice to be with you.
FADEL: So you served in Baghdad as Soleimani rose to this shadowy, powerful general that wielded serious influence in Iraq. Now, isn't Soleimani, though, just a byproduct of American foreign policy, the Iraq War?
FORD: Well, Soleimani, in fact, began his career fighting for the Iran military in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. And he then rose to prominence within the Iranian security establishment. But he is, by no means, a byproduct of some American policy in the Middle East. He is the byproduct of the Iranian government's desire to expand its influence in the region.
FADEL: And a lot of the opening for that influence in Iraq, in Syria - people will look to the Iraq War and the opening that happened there as a reason for it, no?
FORD: Unquestionably, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake which Iran exploited. But I think it's important to remember that Saddam's government itself was suffering under sanctions imposed by the international community. And so Iran always had some leverage against Saddam Hussein. And, in addition, Qassem Soleimani exploited a long-standing alliance with the government of Syria in Damascus.
FADEL: Now, why does Soleimani's killing - just a reminder that this was a military official from a nation-state assassinated by a U.S. drone. Why does it raise such fears of further destabilization in the Middle East among some?
FORD: The concern is that because Qassem Soleimani was so high up in the Iranian government - many people are describing him as the second most powerful man in the Iranian government...
FORD: ...That Iran will feel obliged sooner or later to retaliate sharply.
FADEL: Now, he's the man who commanded Iran's proxies in the region, right? For people who might not know, when we speak about Iran's proxies, who are those proxies, and what was Soleimani's role there?
FORD: Well, they are predominantly - not entirely, but predominantly - militias mobilized from Shia communities in countries such as Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq. And it's those communities which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and people like Qassem Soleimani and his successor General Ghaani - they have been able to mobilize them so that the Iranians don't use Iranian soldiers; they use these fighters from Shia communities in these countries.
FADEL: Going forward, what are you watching for?
FORD: In the immediate days ahead, I'm watching the reaction in Iraq, where we have 5,000 American soldiers. I'm watching to see if the Iraq parliament meets and decides to pass legislation obliging the Iraqi government to expel those 5,000 American soldiers. And that would be a huge setback for the bilateral American-Iraqi relationship. That would be the first, if you will, casualty of the American strike.
FADEL: That's retired Ambassador Robert Ford. Thank you so much.
FORD: It's my pleasure.
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