A US air strike near Baghdad International Airport (ORBI/BGW) resulted in the death of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and several high-profile Iraqi paramilitary leaders on January 3. Soleimani, the commanding officer of the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force special operations unit, was widely regarded as being the second or third most powerful official in Iran, and one of the most influential figures in the greater Middle East.
The January 3 air strike has significantly exacerbated tensions between the US and Iran. Relations between the US and Iraq have become strained as well. Protests against the incident and the wider influence of the US in the region are likely to flare up in the near future. Armed confrontation between US military forces and various armed groups could be a possibility as well; however, direct military confrontation between the US and Iran is less likely to occur.
While a number of associated disruptive incidents could happen in future, these incidents are significantly less likely to take place in the Persian Gulf countries—including Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The most likely locations for potential conflict include Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iran itself, where Iranian security forces have previously established fairly overt military assets. Israel and parts of Saudi Arabia may also be impacted by any Iranian military retaliation through the use of its proxy militias.
Michael Ware, a former Time magazine and CNN correspondent, who was based in Baghdad from 2003 to 2009, described the ongoing crisis between the US and Iran as “a decades long war”—because the war between the United States of America and Iran has been underway for more than 40 years. He added that it’s the American coup that led to the 1979 revolution that placed the Ayatollah on the throne and ensured rule by the mullahs still in power today—the very same mullahs that the now-dead General Soleimani served.
In response to the death of Soleimani, Iran is likely to leverage the strategic and military relationships it has established with various Shiite militias and paramilitary groups in the Middle East. This includes the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Retaliatory attacks may comprise rocket and missile attacks, bombings and coordinated armed attacks. US military assets and interests in the region are the most at-risk for retaliatory military action, primarily US bases and diplomatic missions in Iraq. PMF militias and associated groups in Iraq have conducted rocket attacks in recent days targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad and Balad Air Base. These attacks are not thought to be a part of Iran’s response to Soleimani’s death; however, such independently coordinated rocket attacks are likely to continue in the near term. As US troops deployed in the Middle East are scattered all over, “Lone Wolf” attacks could occur which means that the attack might be launched by anyone, any group, or anyone who is stimulated by any group to spark violence in the region.
While Iranian retaliation—either directly or through its proxies—is more likely to be directed at US assets in the region, a heightened risk is also posed to its allied countries in the region. Israel has raised its security alert level in areas near the Gaza Strip-Israel border and the Lebanon-Israel border in response to heightened regional tensions between Iran and US. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have made general threats aimed at Israel, but Israeli security officials have not identified any specific, credible threat at this time. Saudi Arabia also maintains a higher risk for retaliatory attacks, although this risk is largely localised to areas near the Saudi-Yemeni border due to its ongoing conflict with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia groups.
Protests in opposition to, or in support of future developments, are among the more plausible associated security situations that may occur in the region. Demonstrations can result in localised traffic congestion and block access to major roads. Areas that are closely associated with the US government, including US embassies and consulates, could become locations of possible protest actions. While no such demonstrations have been reported or were announced in recent days, travellers should avoid all large gatherings they encounter.
Risks in the Persian Gulf remain secondary in nature. While no particular countries face heightened security risks, incidents with shipping vessels, like the one that occurred last year, are possible. The closure of the Strait of Hormuz remains a possibility, but is unlikely, given Iran’s dependence on the strait to transport its oil exports. Security incidents impacting maritime commerce in the Persian Gulf could prompt increases in oil prices. Reports of conflict in nearby countries could also prompt aviation providers to make use of longer routes to avoid flying over “at-risk areas”.
While direct associated risks appear to be limited in the region at this time, the ongoing security situation remains fluid. Risks of collateral disruptions or direct Iranian action against locations in the Middle East could increase as additional developments occur.
Major Reza Ul Karim, EB (Retd), is a security and international relations analyst.