On January 3, the Middle East was shaken by the news of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, by the United States near Baghdad’s international airport.
While Qassem Soleimani’s assassination comes as no surprise—especially two days after the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) attacked the US embassy in Iraq—what was startling was the surprise of the US congressional committee, as the air strike was carried out without their knowledge.
In a statement, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engle said that the strike to assassinate Soleimani “went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress.” Engel added, “To push ahead with an action of this gravity without involving Congress raises serious legal problems and is an affront to Congress’s powers as a coequal branch of government”.
Tensions between Iran and the Trump administration have been on the rise for the last couple of years. In May 2018, despite objections from various quarters, Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. And this despite Iran fully complying with the ground-breaking nuclear deal that was signed in 2015. Why? Because Donald Trump felt that he could strike a better deal with Iran that would not only cover Iran’s nuclear activities, but also its missile weapons and its role in the region. Unfortunately, years after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the US has not been able to get Iran to join in any kind of bilateral negotiation.
Since the withdrawal from the JCPOA, the US has imposed multiple crippling sanctions on Iran to force its hands into coming to the negotiation table. But how can the US expect Iran to take part in any bilateral negotiation after imposing sanctions on its foreign spokesperson—Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif?
When Gibraltar decided to allow Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 to set sail after detaining it for months for allegedly trying to sell oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, the US tried its best to thwart it—in a last- ditch attempt, the US sought legal assistance to stop the tanker from being released.
And in the face of all these events Iran has been cautious. After the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran had repeatedly requested the other signatories of the deal for their support, especially in the context of the harsh and inhumane economic sanctions slapped by the US. Only after multiple failed attempts to salvage the nuclear deal did Iran gradually increase its nuclear activities.
However, there have been times when Iran lashed out: it was linked with the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz in 2019, and the drone attacks on Saudi Aramco refineries, which were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, among others. In June last year, Iran’s IRGC shot down a United States surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz, which it claimed had entered into its territory. And in retaliation of the detention of Grace 1 by British Royal Marines off the shore of Gibraltar, Iran seized British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz. These events further escalated tensions between the US and Iran.
While Soleimani was no doubt a controversial figure, his assassination was an irresponsible and unnecessary move by the US. Saying that the US’ move will expose it to multidimensional challenges is an understatement.
For one, even though a statement from the Pentagon said that Soleimani had been “developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region” and that “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” by assassinating Soleimani, the US has jeopardised the safety of hundreds and thousands of its soldiers, diplomats and citizens in the region. And although the US, in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, has advised its citizens to immediately leave Iraq, how it plans to protect its military personnel in the region, should Iran choose to retaliate, remains to be seen. The US is admittedly set to deploy additional troops in the region, but is it enough?
Secondly, Soleimani had played a key role in eliminating the ISIS from the region and the PMF had been crucial in fighting off the ISIS, Al Qaeda and other such elements in the region. Terrorist outfits might decide to take advantage of the assassination of Soleimani along with that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the second in command of the PMF. This will pose further challenges for the US.
Third, Soleimani was a highly respected figure in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and his assassination has increased the hostility of Iran’s many allies in MENA towards America. While talking to reporters, Trump said that Soleimani had been assassinated “to stop a war, not to start one”. However, many analysts, including Iranian analyst Mohammad Marandi, say that the move by the US is nothing short of an “act of war”. Iraq’s prime minister has warned that the assassination can “light the fuse” of war. Pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar published the headline: “The martyrdom of Soleimani: It is war”. And Iran’s National Security Council spokesman Keyvan Khosravi has warned that “the legal, political, security, and military consequences of this crime is on the US government”.
Israel putting its military on heightened alert amidst fears of retaliation by Iran is a barometer reading of the intense tension that is brewing in the region. According to a CNN report, in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, oil prices have also jumped by four percent.
Fourth, the assassination of Soleimani will potentially act as a major factor in unifying the various anti-US militia factions in the region against their common enemy—the US. Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has already called on the Mahdi army and other armed groups to be prepared to protect Iraq. And Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq armed faction, has said that “all fighters should be on high alert for upcoming battle and great victory.”
If these don’t bode ominous for MENA’s regional stability, one wonders what would.
Finally, by killing Soleimani on Iraqi soil, the US has sent a very negative message to Iraq and the region—that it does not respect the sovereignty of Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in a written statement said that the airstrike is a “breach of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
And after this, any peaceful, bilateral dialogue between the US and Iran seems like a distant—if not impossible—possibility. Soleimani was considered the second most powerful man in Iran and was very close to Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who has vowed revenge in a Twitter post on Friday: “a #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night.”
In a region already teetering on edge, this latest US action is another spanner-in-the-works of any possible talk of de-escalation, let alone peace. Even for the current US administration, which despite its boots-off-the-ground rhetoric is having to deploy an additional 750 soldiers in the region in the wake of the recent attack on the US embassy in Iraq and thousands of troops after the assassination of Soleimani, this action will be an expensive gambit.
So where does this latest action fit within the grand masterplan of the leader of the free world? That remains to be seen—along with whether there is a plan, master or otherwise, at all.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.