The assassination of the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, on the direct orders of United States President Donald Trump, has plunged an already volatile region into further turmoil. Trump had claimed that he had authorised the assassination on the basis of credible information that the Iranian general was planning imminent attacks on U.S. targets in the region. However, he has not been able to present any evidence to back up his claims.
Trump’s former Defence Secretary, James Mattis, had observed in a recent interview that Trump was a man “of limited cognitive abilities and of generally dubious character”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the only foreign leader to openly welcome the killing. He had often suggested the assassination of Soleimani to Trump.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are under tremendous domestic pressure. Trump has been impeached by the U.S. Congress, while Netanyahu has been indicted by Israel’s Attorney General on corruption charges.
Soleimani, who was targeted for assassination, was one of the most popular figures in Iran and in the wider region. Many observers of the region are of the view that he was the second most important person in Iran after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The U.S. was certainly aware of his stature. The previous two Presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, also had the option of taking out their long-time nemesis, but they declined, fully aware of the ramifications of such an act.
Soleimani was often spoken of as a possible contender for the Iranian presidency. He was popular with both the hardline and the moderate political factions in Iran. The emotional outpouring seen on the streets of Iran is testimony to the widespread view among Iranians that they consider Soleimani’s assassination a declaration of war against their country by the U.S.
Soleimani and the Quds Force were instrumental in the defeat of the Daesh (Islamic State) and the jehadist forces in Syria. The Quds Force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is specifically tasked to protect the country’s national interests in the region and provide support to friendly governments in the neighbourhood in the form of military training.
Soleimani had played a key role in the successful struggle to prevent a U.S.-inspired regime change in Syria. The general oversaw the logistical and strategic help that Iran provided Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Role in Syria
When the military situation became serious, Soleimani went to Moscow seeking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military assistance. Syria and Iran have been allies of long standing. Syria was the only Arab country that openly supported Iran during its eight-year-long war with Iraq. The U.S. instigated former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to launch the war in which more than one million people on both sides were killed. Soleimani, who hailed from a poor peasant family, started his military career at the beginning of that war in 1980 and was noticed for his bravery and organisational skills.
Soleimani’s military expertise was put to good use in the region. In Syria, pro-government militias were created and trained to fight alongside the Syrian Army. The Hizbollah militia in Lebanon, which has strong ties with both Syria and Iran, also plunged into the fray in Syria to help the government, which was facing concerted attacks from the north and the south by jehadist groups financed and trained by the West and its regional allies. The Hizbollah’s growth as one of the toughest military forces in the region also owes a lot to Soleimani’s military prowess.
The Quds Force trained and armed the Hizbollah so that Lebanon could be defended from Israeli aggression and occupation. The Hizbollah proved its mettle on the battlefield when it fought the Israeli army, the most powerful in the region, after it launched an invasion in 2006, and forced it to retreat. The Hizbollah now has a potent range of missiles in its armoury, ready to be used at short notice against Israel.
Soleimani, in a way, was the moving force in the creation of the anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli “axis of resistance” comprising Iran, Syria and the Hizbollah. Iraq could very soon officially become part of this alliance. In Yemen, the Houthi-led government has pledged support to Iran. The Houthis had claimed credit for the sophisticated missile attack on the Saudi Aramco refinery last year.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, in a speech after Soleimani was killed, vowed to target U.S. troops in the region to avenge the assassination. He said the targets included “U.S. military bases, soldiers, officers and warships”. Militia groups in Iraq have already fired missiles into the green zone in Baghdad that houses the U.S. embassy.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, was in Tehran to pay his respects to Soleimani. He described Soleimani as “a martyr for Jerusalem” and said that he provided invaluable help to the Palestinian resistance.
Soleimani played a crucial role in defeating the Daesh in Syria and Iraq. But for the timely intervention of the militias trained by the Quds Force, Baghdad would have fallen, according to several experts. Neighbouring cities such as Tikrit had already fallen. There was also some degree of cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in fighting the Daesh in Iraq, especially in the protracted fight to liberate Mosul. For that matter, the IRGC had cooperated with the U.S. military in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack. Iran-trained militias in Afghanistan also played a role in the defeat of the Taliban.
The Iraqi paramilitaries trained by Iranian military officers coordinated with the U.S. military forces in the fight against the Daesh. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, in a speech to the country’s parliament, said that Soleimani had visited Baghdad at his invitation to discuss a possible diplomatic deal his government had brokered to end Iran’s diplomatic impasse with Saudi Arabia.
He said that Trump had personally thanked him for his efforts, thus giving the impression that it was safe for Soleimani to travel to Baghdad.
Soleimani was openly travelling on a diplomatic passport, going through immigration control at Baghdad airport. As soon as he drove out of the airport in the company of the leading commander of the Iraqi militias working under the banner of the Iraqi armed forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the U.S. zoomed in on the target with drone-mounted missiles. Al-Muhandis was very close to Soleimani. The Iraqi paramilitary groups under his command were in the forefront of the fight against the Daesh. The coffin of Al-Muhandis was carried alongside that of Soleimani during the funeral processions held in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Tehran, Mashhad and Qom. Al-Muhandis was finally buried in Najaf.
The killing of the two commanders has now seemingly repaired the frayed bonds between the two countries. Anti-Iran protesters in Baghdad and Najaf have withdrawn from the streets. Trump was led to believe that sections of the Iraqi populace would actually welcome the state-sponsored assassinations.
Blowback against U.S.
The legions who attended Soleimani’s funeral demanded revenge. “No negotiations, no deal. Only war with America” has been the most popular slogan heard during the funeral processions. Trump added more fuel to the fire by threatening to bomb 52 Iranian cultural and heritage sites, symbolising the 52 Americans who were held hostage during the siege of the U.S. embassy in 1980.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reminded him of the 290 people killed when an Iranian passenger plane was brought down by a U.S. warship in 1988. “Those who remember the number 52 should also remember the number 290. Never threaten the Iranian nation,” he tweeted.
One of Rouhani’s top advisers, Hesamodin Ashna, tweeted that after Soleimani’s assassination, “the political, military and security red lines in the region will be transformed”.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describing Soleimani as a “martyr”, vowed to exact “harsh revenge”. His senior adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, said the U.S. would be left with no option but to leave the region. Otherwise, it will be facing “another Vietnam”, he added. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, described Soleimani’s killing as “an act of state terrorism”.
The blowback against the U.S. has already begun. Political pundits and commentators in that country have described Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani as a monumental blunder.
The Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding that U.S. troops quickly exit from the country. It urged the government “to work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason”. Iraq formally complained to the United Nations Security Council about the violations of its sovereignty by the U.S.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the U.S. has decided to withdraw its military from Iraq. A letter from William Seely, Commanding General, U.S. Special Forces in Iraq, dated January 6, 2020, apparently acceded to the request of the Iraqi government to withdraw U.S. troops from the country. “In due deference to the sovereignty” of Iraq, the U.S. Combined Iraq Task Force will “be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement”, he said in the letter.
The Iraqi Prime Minister also confirmed that his office had received a signed copy of the letter. The Pentagon, however, was quick to rebut the contents of the letter which were leaked to the media, stating that it was only “a draft document” meant to be circulated internally.
But Abdul-Mahdi refuted the claim and said that the letter was authentic. “It is not a piece of paper that fell off the printer or reached us by coincidence,” he said.
U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Trump strongly denied reports of an impending drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq despite the Iraqi government’s demand. Trump, in fact, threatened stringent sanctions on Iraq if U.S. troops were forced out of their military bases. He said that U.S. troops could leave if Iraq compensated the U.S. for the billions of dollars it had spent on constructing military bases such as the one at Ballad near Baghdad.
The Iraqi political leadership has made it clear that it will not take kindly to U.S. troops overstaying their welcome. The U.S. is hoping that the Kurds and the Sunni members of the Iraqi parliament will extend a helping hand in its efforts to cling on to its military bases, but they are in a minority in the parliament. A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will turn Trump’s plan of keeping Syria’s oil into a pipe dream. The U.S.’ military influence in West Asia could, in the near future, be confined to the Gulf monarchies.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been rushing extra troops to the region and bending over backwards to keep countries such as Pakistan on its side. A day after Soleimani’s assassination, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a hurried call to Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa. The Trump administration also announced that it had lifted curbs on U.S. military training and educational assistance to the Pakistan Army, which were imposed in 2018. However, the Pakistan Army spokesman stated that no foreign troops would be allowed to operate from Pakistani soil.
In a message aimed at the Indian government, Trump went to the extent of claiming that Soleimani was even involved in fomenting terror plots in cities such as New Delhi and London. Trump called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi to solicit support. The Modi government has already acceded to all the demands made by the U.S., stopping the purchase of oil from Iran and refusing to engage even in barter trade with the country.
At the same time, India was given “a special waiver” by the Trump administration to go ahead with the development of sections of the Chabahar port. The Iranians are running out of patience at the slow pace of work on the project and are generally unhappy with the Indian government for kowtowing to U.S. diktats.
India did not condemn or even mildly criticise Soleimani’s assassination. The statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry only “noted” the demise of the Iranian military leader. Another war in West Asia would be devastating for the Indian economy, which is already under duress.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was in Tehran in December for a Joint Commission meeting of the two countries. Before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran after unilaterally abrogating the nuclear deal, Iran had provided high-quality crude at a discount to India.
After Soleimani’s assassination, Iran announced that it was no longer bound by the restrictions imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the U.S. “Iran’s nuclear programme will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity,” the Iranian government said in a statement. Iran also said it would no longer observe any limits on installing centrifuges to enrich uranium or the level to which it enriched it.
Iran has left open the possibility of returning to the provisions of the nuclear deal in the future. It has also not stopped international inspectors from entering the country. The Iranian Foreign Minister said that the country would continue to fully cooperate with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Other signatories to the nuclear deal, such as Russia, China, Germany and France, blame the unilateral acts of the Trump administration for the steady unravelling of the nuclear deal. Trump did not take even his closest allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation into his confidence while charting out his action in Iran.
As the Iranian leadership vowed, two U.S. military bases in Iraq were attacked after three days of official mourning. The IRGC launched a barrage of precision guided surface-to-surface missiles into the Ein al Abad and Erbil bases. Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami noted that for the first time since the Second World War, a U.S. military base had been directly targeted.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran’s response “was a slap on the face of America”. He had promised direct military action against the U.S. and it happened.
The Iraqi Prime Minister has revealed that he received advance notice about the imminent attacks from Tehran to keep Iraqi troops out of harm’s way. There are reports that Finland was also informed to indirectly keep the U.S. in the loop. It was, therefore, not surprising that there were no casualties among both Americans and Iraqis.
The Iranian military leadership has said that the attack was only “an initial response” to the killing of Soleimani. The spokesman for the Iraqi militias has said that they will also be taking “initial action to avenge the death of martyred commander Muhandis”.
However, both the U.S. and Iran have indicated that they would like to de-escalate tensions for the time being. But the repercussions of Soleimani’s killing will be severe in the region in the months to come, according to most observers.