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The Elimination of General Qassem Soleimani – an Act of War That Changes the Strategic Equation in the Middle East

BLOG - 6 January 2020

On the early morning of Friday 3 January, a convoy of off-road vehicles leaves Baghdad airport. In one of them is General Qassem Soleimani, head of the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (the Quds Force), arguably the Iranian regime's number 2 occult leader, and architect of Iran's Middle East policy. A few American drones and that's the end of the legendary general. Among those accompanying the high-ranking Iranian officer was the number two of the most powerful Iraqi Shiite militia, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who was also killed by the American strikes. His elimination, in other circumstances, would in itself have been a considerable event.

General Soleimani was a particularly despised figure by the US military for his role in supporting the Sunni Iraqi insurgency against the United States (US) occupation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. One can therefore assume that his numerous trips to the region had been under close scrutiny by the American services for a long time. Until now he had benefited from some kind of immunity – hence his imprudent habit of appearing in all the region’s military stages – for an obvious reason: because of his very importance in the Iranian machinery, it was accepted that any attack against him would lead to fierce reprisals by Iran, targeting in particular American soldiers and citizens stationed in Iraq and in the region. The cost of eliminating the Quds Force was considered too high compared to the benefits that could have been expected.

"Restoring deterrence" against Iran

Why has President Trump suddenly reversed this bet? One can of course invoke the impulsiveness of the American leader, obvious domestic policy concerns on his part, a misjudgement on the consequences of his decision. It must also be recognised that this decision, however risky it may be, is part of a precise strategic context: the arm wrestling between the US and Iran had begun to turn in favour of Tehran several weeks ago, at least in terms of each power’s respective influence in the region. It was particularly the case since a massive attack had targeted the core of Saudi Arabia's oil installations on 14 September 2019 without the Trump administration deeming retaliation necessary.

The cost of eliminating the Quds Force was considered too high compared to the benefits that could have been expected.

From there on, Iran's so-called proxies – in this case the Shiite militias in Iraq – had thought themselves authorized to attack American military installations on Iraqi territory. An attack of this type, blamed on Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia, not to be confused with the Lebanese Hezbollah, resulted in the death of an American subcontractor at a US military base in the North of the country on 27 December.

Could President Trump have left the death of one of his fellow citizens unpunished? It would have confirmed his growing image as a "paper tiger". He was de facto forced to "restore deterrence" against Iran, as is said in military language. This was done on 29 December when an American attack claimed the lives of 25 Kata’ib Hezbollah militiamen in a series of raids across five Kata’ib Hezbollah locations in Iraq and Syria. Could it have ended there? Possibly – it is not certain – but the main pro-Iranian Iraqi leaders committed the imprudence of unleashing "demonstrators" against the American embassy in Baghdad's "green zone" in the last hours of the year.

One can imagine, without getting too speculative, what impact the images of the American embassy in Baghdad had on Donald Trump and his advisors. Such images could only conjure up others, such as that of the US diplomats taken hostage in Tehran from 1979 to 1981 or that of the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi under the Obama administration. The dread of beginning his re-election campaign under such auspices probably contributed to Trump's decision to attack this particularly symbolic target, General Soleimani, once again in transit between Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Tehran.

Was the head of the Quds Force preparing new attacks against American interests, as US officials have said to justify his targeted assassination? It is likely, but it was in a way part of his usual agenda: there is no proof that he would have actually advised the Supreme Leader to take this or that action when the US had just shown renewed determination and Iran had had the symbolic satisfaction of having threatened the US embassy in Baghdad.

What possible scenarios for the Europeans?

What will happen now? Commentators are not short of scenarios. A dividing line between two kinds of predictions has emerged. For some, the Islamic Republic is forced to take revenge. Trump has provoked an escalation that could quickly spiral out of control. The death of the Iranian proconsul in the Levant could thus have the exact opposite effect that was sought, i.e. to unleash the wrath of Iran and its proxies against American interests and nationals in the region, in the form of kidnapping of the latter in particular. In the hours following Soleimani's death, the Supreme Leader and the Iranian regime’s main spokesmen shouted out revenge – while indicating following the traditional line that they would choose the day, the hour and the means of their retaliation. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was more specific and vowed that all US troops in the region would now be targets.

Other experts point out that Iranian decision-makers tend to be rational. They know that their country is economically on its knees and that the regime is being increasingly challenged by its own people as well as those of neighboring countries. They can calculate that in an open conflict with the US, their armed forces would simply not be up to the task. Moreover, the US have, on several occasions in recent weeks, sent reinforcements to their various military bases in the region.

The next few days will tell whether the US has really succeeded in "restoring deterrence" around its interests.

To these arguments, one would be tempted to add another. On the symbolic level, a balance could emerge from the post-Soleimani assassination; on the American side, Trump may present the Iranian general's scalp as being an addition to that of Baghdadi; on the Iranian side, the mythical image of the martyred general, hero of the Islamic Republic’s ideals, will prove very useful to the regime's propaganda. It will be used, among other things, by Tehran to try and turn the anger of the Iraqi Shiites who have taken to the streets since the beginning of October, to protest against the Americans instead of their current focus on Baghdad authorities’ corruption and Iran’s tutelage.

Let us not decide here between the different schools of prediction. Instead, let us indicate several points of reference which could enlighten the action of European leaders.

  • Nuclear agreement: the Iranian government was expected to announce earlier this week another step in its strategy of progressively challenging its obligations under the nuclear agreement (JCPOA). The decisions made public by Tehran confirm that the Iranian authorities, in retaliation for the elimination of the head of the Quds Force, have chosen a “high” option equivalent to a virtual withdrawal from the agreement, without going so far as to evade the controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), undoubtedly in order to maintain a bridge with the Europeans. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Europeans to maintain the fiction that "the JCPOA can still be saved";
     
  • Iraq/ISIS: the biggest issue in the immediate post-Qassem Soleimani era is the fate of Iraq. The Iraqi Parliament passed a motion on Sunday 5 January, presented by the Prime Minister, calling for the withdrawal of US forces intended to fight ISIS. One can think that Iran will put all its weight in the balance to ensure the American’s departure and thus obtain through political means what General Soleimani's bloody maneuvers aimed at. It is a government on probation that holds only weak power in Baghdad at the moment; it is not certain, moreover, how far Iraq can go in emancipating from Washington. The fact is, however, that the American presence in Iraq is hanging by a thread. A particularly damaging consequence for the Europeans: the coalition against ISIS as well as the American presence in northeast Syria  are likely to be collateral victims of the current escalation between the US and Iran; except  Russia, ISIS virtually stands as the main beneficiary of Qassem Soleimani's death in the immediate future;
     
  • America's regional allies: thirdly, the next few days will tell whether the US has really succeeded in "restoring deterrence" around its interests. Donald Trump's threatening tweets may indicate that he himself is not entirely certain. The point to note is that, for the time being, deterrence has not been restored with regard to America's allies, especially regional allies. Saudi Arabia and even the United Arab Emirates remain vulnerable targets for further attacks of the kind that took place on 14 September. If Iran is to retaliate, the immediate priority could be to threaten its Gulf neighbors.

Under these conditions, it is understandable that European leaders' first reflex was to call on the various regional players to exercise restraint and de-escalation. They did not approve the US raid on General Soleimani. It is up to them to convey to the Iranians and their allies a message of realism: Trump has de facto changed what the military calls the "rules of engagement" in the region; it can no longer be taken for granted that the Iranians themselves will be spared in the event of attacks by proxies against American interests. Europeans must add mezzo voce that further steps towards obtaining nuclear weapons appear particularly unwise in the context of this new strategic equation.

Over and above such messages, it would be appropriate for Europe – which is marginalized in military terms – to put forward a twofold political initiative: on the one hand, support for measures to stabilise Iraq; on the other hand, encouragement for a security dialogue between countries in the region. Iran's neighbors, as has been pointed out, are undoubtedly on the front line of a potential Iranian counter-offensive but, in the face of a US threat that has become much more serious, it may be in Iran's interest not to multiply the fronts. Consultation along these lines with Russia, but also with China, India and Japan, which, like Europe, are interested in de-escalation, could be useful.

 

 

Copyright : Yasin AKGUL / AFP

 

 

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