Late on 2 January the United States killed Iran’s military mastermind Qassem Soleimani along with the deputy commander of Iran-backed Iraqi militias the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on the road to the international airport in Baghdad.
IRGC Quds Force chief Soleimani was not just a military figure, he was also one of the most influential figures in Iranian politics. Moreover, he was an iconic figure for millions in Iran and for its supporters overseas – especially in the likes of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
His death deals a crushing blow to Iran’s regional strategy. But it also has dangerous ramifications. Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly labelled him a martyr, tweeting that “Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge.” For once such rhetoric appears to reflect reality.
Mr Soleimani embodied Iran’s so-called Shia Crescent, its area of influence stretching across Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Tehran will almost certainly feel compelled to retaliate: failing to do so would entail too much loss of face. Iran has conducted a series of bold regional attacks in recent months, most notably against Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility in September (MEES, 20 September 2019).
Tehran will also seek to use anger over Mr Soleimani’s assassination to rally its own population to its cause. Recent months have seen growing unrest and protests over the grim economic situation stemming from sanctions and economic mismanagement (MEES, 22 November 2019). Such a seismic event could prove a propaganda boon for the Islamic Republic.
Giving rationale for the attack, US officials listed examples from a long list of grievances – from Mr Soleimani’s killing of US servicemen during the Iraq war, to this week’s attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad by Iran-backed militiamen – and claim he was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Reactions in Washington are split: the supporters of President Donald Trump are lavishly praising the move, whilst his opponents – acknowledging Mr Soleimani’s status as the greatest regional threat to American interests – are nonetheless warning of blowback from Mr Trump’s rash decision.
It is questionable that Mr Trump fully appreciates the magnitude of assassinating a senior foreign official on foreign soil, but regardless, all eyes are now on how Iran will retaliate.
Despite the gravity of the American strike, carried out via helicopter, Iran is unlikely to strike back with a conventional military attack – it does not want war with the US. Similarly, a move to close the Strait of Hormuz is unlikely as it would cut off Iran’s limited remaining oil exports - including its ability to supply its Syrian allies with oil.
Most likely is that Iran will use its extensive regional military network – itself a product of Mr Soleimani’s successes – to strike back at US positions (or interests) in the Middle East. These Iranian proxies, and sympathetic militias, are especially strong in Iraq where there are also a host of American targets. The US is evacuating civilian personnel there and also deploying military units.
Syria and Lebanon – both also strongholds of Iran-affiliated militias – are also potential battlegrounds. The US presence in Syria is limited, but is in close quarters to pro-Iranian forces in the northeast and east. In Lebanon, American non-military targets are plentiful, and Hezbollah is capable of attacking any corner of the country: its 1983 Marine barracks attack that killed 305 (mostly American) military personnel outside Beirut was instrumental in triggering a US pull-back from the Middle East. Of course, Hezbollah has since the 1990s shied away from civilian attacks: it would be unlikely to attack non-military personnel.
Bahrain is also at risk. It has a strong US military presence, and a disgruntled majority Shiite population which has spent much of the previous decade in frequently-violent protests.
There may also be further periodic attacks on oil tankers close to the Strait of Hormuz, although likely avoiding those delivering cargoes to China (Iran’s key remaining buyer).
The situation is rapidly evolving, but even at these early stages, one consequence is clear: Iraq (and its population) will once again bear the brunt of escalating hostilities.
Iraq’s political system was already stretched to breaking point with three months of widespread protests bringing the country to a standstill (MEES, 11 October 2019) and forcing the prime minister to resign (MEES, 6 December 2019). Highlighting the chaos, the government remains in place.
In the chaos, a US contractor was killed near Kirkuk, prompting the US to carry out airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria on 29 December. Two dozen fighters were killed, prompting the group’s supporters to this week attack the US embassy in Baghdad. The US response was more aggressive than anybody expected.
While some in Iraq have celebrated the death of the symbol of Iranian interference, many will be inflamed by the US breach of Iraqi sovereignty. They will put further pressure on the government to kick out American forces.
There were already concerns that the political upheaval was creating a vacuum in areas for the Islamic State to exploit. The fallout could further aid the extremist group’s recovery in northern Iraqi province such as Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahuddin. The western province of Anbar is another area at risk.
Beyond security concerns, this surely sounds the death knell for prospects of flagship US major Exxon Mobil signing up to the chimeric Common Seawater Supply Project (CSSP) in the foreseeable future – the key project is essential for sizeable Iraqi crude production gains (MEES, 20 December 2019).
Iraq also depends on US waivers to import electricity and gas from Iran (MEES, 21 June 2019) and those may now be under threat. Although faced with such a prospect, Iraq may well just continue the imports regardless. Just hours before the assassination Electricity Minister Luay al-Khatteeb took to Twitter to explain that a recent deterioration in power supply was because greater Iranian demand had hit imports. Iraq aims to begin electricity imports from the GCC this summer, but wants this to augment, not replace, Iranian supplies (MEES, 13 September 2019).