The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani constitutes not only an escalation in tensions between the USA and Iran, but one of the most significant escalations in Middle Eastern politics for some time. Not only was Soleimani a revered war hero in Iran, but he was also intimate with the Iranian clerical leadership, heading the Quds Force, a subdivision of the highly trained, equipped and ideological Revolutionary Guard. His assassination is markedly different to the killing of al-Baghdadi or Naim Qassem, ex-leader and deputy leader respectively of ISIS and Hezbollah; the killing of a leading military figure of a sovereign country can, not unfairly, be interpreted as a declaration of war, however horrific his record.
Further, Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East is heavily reliant upon Quds and the Revolutionary Guard. Over several decades, the Iranian Ayatollahs have become extremely adept at covert warfare, funding, training and supporting terrorist organisations throughout the Arab World in countries such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Multiple Iranian proxies were closely connected to the recent protests which besieged the US embassy in Baghdad that began this course of events. This bombing by America therefore is not some peripheral restraint on Iranian economic interests but constitutes a direct attack on their most efficient weapon on the international stage.
Already American citizens have been urged to withdraw from Iraq entirely and told not to approach the Baghdad embassy. Numerous American and international businesses operate within Iraq, whose production shall no doubt suffer as a result. Further, they may see their own operations under attack, seen by Iranian sympathisers and operators as proxies of US interests. Though I suspect retaliation by Iran itself will likely target explicit American and Israeli targets, wider Iranian sympathisers in Iraq may also turn their anger towards western entities writ large. Let us not forget that although certain elements within the Iraqi parliament are sympathetic towards Iran, Iraq remains a needed ally of America. That American citizens are being urged to leave a US ally is therefore a dramatic and sudden alteration in US-Iraqi relations, and it shall be very interesting to see how the Iraqi government responds to this unfolding event.
To stabilise their position, America has resorted to sending a significant number of troops to Kuwait – 3000 thus far, though I suspect many more could be sent within short notice. America will likely scramble to secure vital interests within Iraq, as they simply cannot afford to completely abandon their presence within the country. It is vitally important not only to checking Iranian interests, but also to address issues in bordering Syria. If the Iraqi government fulfils the request of the legislature to revoke the invitation to America, US troops will also be forced to vacate Iraq, or be in breach of international law. Their departure, along with other coalition forces helping to mop up remnants of ISIS, would fundamentally change the precarious positions of power between terrorist groups, Assad and Russian forces, and coalition-backed entities in Iraq and Syria. This would likely be to Assad’s gain.
America is not the only power responding to this event – Iran has promised fire and brimstone for the assassination of a man they call a national hero. Russia has been one of the few powers to explicitly admonish America for the killing, but it’s unclear just how much they can do to respond. Retaliation will therefore likely come in one of three potential forms: firstly, directly by the Iranian regime and its Revolutionary Guard; secondly, from associated Iranian-backed entities such as Hezbollah; and thirdly, from disparate unorganised groups unaffiliated with any regime, likely in Iraq itself. We should not be too quick, however, to portray all of Iraq’s population as pro-Iran and as eager to take up arms against America. Iraq’s government had previously come under great scrutiny for continued ties to Iran, including from Iraq’s Shi’a population, and media organisations such as Al-Jazeera have reported celebration at Soleimani’s killing, seen by some as a key meddler in Iraqi affairs. Nonetheless, it is at least plausible that sections of the general population in Iraq, and across the Middle East, will be impassioned by this act.
A retaliatory strike through Hezbollah is a favoured Iranian tactic. But I suspect it shan’t be seen as enough this time by the Iranian regime. You can expect escalation from Iranian-backed organisations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, jeopardising not only the little political stability present in such countries, but also the economic and political interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other US allies in the region. Sadly, it is almost certain that such entities will respond with violence of some kind. If, however, the Iranian response was limited to peripheral attacks through such entities, Iran may worry that America would see this as a strategic win, encouraging them to ramp up their actions against the Quds forces. In essence, if Iran does not respond with an attack in kind, they may worry they come off as the loser in this engagement.
Finally, will some official Iranian entity attack United States operatives? The number of interests the Ayatollah of Iran must now consider are numerous – much of the Iranian population I will likely demand a swift and powerful response. However the dramatic strength of the United States in the Middle East (furthered through the new presence of troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq) would make at least certain retaliatory strikes an almost certainly failures. Iran may also be seeking advice from Russia, China and others to see what options are open to them. A more successful route of attack for Iran may be digital, making use of recent advancements in technological warfare.
A likely site of tension is the Strait of Hormuz, shared between Iran and the Gulf states. It was here that last year a British-flagged tanker was seized, and the presence of Iranian, British, Saudi, American and smaller Gulf nation militaries makes this region a likely source of conflict. While I remain sceptical as to the potential for total war, some form of an economic embargo at choke points by Iran could prove devastating to international oil production and prices.
One outcome, of which I remain sceptical, is the potential for war à la Iraq 2003. In 2003, America faced a pariah state led by a secular leader with little domestic or international support, a military weakened after war with Iran, and a generally incapable leadership. In Iran, one finds a sizeable population, a highly efficient military force, not-insignificant levels of support for the state from the populace, and geographical constraints on potential invasion. Only the most hawkish of figures such as John Bolton consider direct regime change feasible, and with Trump also considering his domestic re-election, I doubt he shall consider war, which has become a vote loser I suspect since 2003. Of course, conflict can stop short of invasion, and as I have said, violence in Iraq or the Strait will itself constitute a worrisome escalation in affairs.
I’ll note that America’s assassination of Soleimani is not necessarily an irrational display of aggression (I shall leave it to you whether it can be justified or not). As I have said, the Revolutionary Guard remains Iran’s best way of influencing affairs in the Middle East, and through it, terrorist organisations have seen great success in limiting US influence in important strategic regions. And though the US-Iran nuclear deal contained much good it was wholly implausible that Iran would sacrifice its organisational and military network which has afforded it so much regional influence. In the absence of cooperation, any effective response to Iran would most naturally take the form of retaliation against Quds. They are, as we have seen in the Baghdad protests, capable of and willing to, present violent threats to US personnel.
The killing of Soleimani is not comparable to prior instances of escalation between Iran and America. It is the single most brazen act of escalation America could have taken short of an attack on Iranian soil. As such, the response one can expect from Iran should be of similar proportions. Countries such as Great Britain are right thus to urge for de-escalation, as Iran will no doubt respond in a very dangerous manner. If we are to avoid an ever-worsening position now, America must work very closely with its international allies to moderate its position, and Russia should attempt to tame Iran’s response, though the extent to which it can is questionable. One will likely see related conflict breaking out in Palestine or Lebanon, as Israel is seen by Iran as an extension of US interests, and Hezbollah figures were also assassinated alongside Soleimani. We must be wary of the potential American response to the murder of an American soldier or citizen, which is now an entirely plausible outcome, as it could further exacerbate affairs beyond measure.