In what could be a possible trigger for a calamitous war, the United States of America, in a drone attack on January 3 in Baghdad, assassinated Iran’s top security and intelligence commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Though the Pentagon did not reveal the specifics of the intelligence that led to the operation, some senior officials cited the attack as a retaliation to a strike carried out on a base near Kirkuk, Iraq, by Iran-backed militia, killing an American contractor on December 27.
Gen Soleimani was one of the region’s strongest leaders who protected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the Syrian war. The US firmly believes that the General played a key role in bringing together security forces and militia for the benefit of Iran’s long-time ally Syria during the civil war.
But that was not the only reason why the US eliminated Soleimani. American officials accuse him of providing advanced weapon-making training and equipment to the Iraqi insurgents during the Iraq war and of being a cause of deaths of hundreds of US soldiers. They also accuse him of destabilising US interests in West Asia. It is believed that he strongly supported the idea of US exit from West Asia.
In an official statement after the killing, the Pentagon said “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the death of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Why A Target
There is a certain buzz world over, though many countries including India have kept mum over the “why” of the killing. There seem to be no clear answers. Pentagon has cited reasons for killing the General and President Donald Trump has backed every bit of it.
Soleimani’s greatest notoriety arose from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State group. Iran sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule. While a US-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories by Iraqi forces featured photographs of Soleimani leading them without a flak jacket.
However, Soleimani was a relatively unknown face in Iran, until the USA invaded Iraq in 2003. For the US and its allies like Israel, Soleimani was a shadowy figure who ran the proxy forces of Iran for a long time, which fought for Assad. It was only after the American officials called for his killing that the General’s popularity grew. A decade-and-a-half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognisable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but growing as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
Referring to Soleimani as a “Monster”, Trump said he was planning a “big attack, a bad attack” and added that the former was travelling with the head of Hezbollah. US Defence Secretary Mark Esper called Soleimani “a terrorist, a leader of a terrorist organisation who’s been killing and attacking Americans for 20 some years”. “The blood is on his hands,” he added.
But all said and done, the reason behind the killing could be as simple as the growing prominence of the Iranian proxy militia groups in Iraq that fought the IS away. Iraq’s growing dependence on these groups could mean a shift of power in the region from the US’ hands to the hands of Iran.
Tehran Gets Back
The killing of Soleimani immediately raised cries of revenge from Tehran and in a quick response, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting”. “His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” he said, adding “a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Khamenei did not waste time in appointing Soleimani’s deputy, Maj Gen Esmail Ghaani, as the new commander of the Quds Force, which undertakes the country’s foreign campaigns, including in Syria and Yemen.
Tehran has not only hit back with words but also launched dozens of ballistic missiles on US airbases in Irbil and Al Asad, west of Baghdad. Though there has not been any clarity over the damage the airstrikes have done, the initial response from Washington was eerily muted. However, Trump did tweet that “All was well” and said that damages and casualties were being assessed.
The attacks came hours after the burial of Soleimani.
Terming the attack a “slap in the face” for the US, Khamenei called for an end to the presence of the US in West Asia.
While some US allies claimed that Iran shared the blame by provoking the attacks, global powers warned that the strikes now made the world “a more dangerous place”. Countries across the globe strongly believe that the tension between Tehran and Washington could soon escalate into a war, which could set the whole of West Asia ablaze.
Meanwhile, US officials have braced for potential Iranian retaliatory attacks, possibly including cyberattacks and terrorism, on American interests and allies. US’ close ally Israel has also started preparing for the worst. Reports said some of the country’s popular tourist sites have already been closed and that the armed forces have been on alert.
On the other hand, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed that “the world cannot afford another war” in the Persian Gulf. Seconding Guterres’ statement, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “a further escalation that sets the whole region on fire needs to be prevented.”
Bringing political interests to the fore, the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that it was a mere stunt by Trump for his re-election in the upcoming polls. Trump, however, has nothing positive to give to the world. In a harsh comment made after the killing, he tweeted, “He should have been taken out many years ago.” “We took action to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war”.
The tension between the US and Iran is something the world has been witnessing since the late 1970s. It all started when 52 American diplomats were held hostage in the US embassy for 444 days during the Iranian revolution, which saw the US-backed Iranian monarch Mohammad Reza Shah being overthrown, and turning the nation into an Islamic Republic, paving the way to conflicts with the US.
Decades later, in 2015, Iran started being vocal with the world powers about withdrawal from the nuclear deal with the US denting the already strained relationship between the two countries. In 2018, Trump put the final nail in the coffin by pulling out of the nuclear deal, labelling it as “horrible” and “one-sided” which left them to be “held hostage to nuclear blackmail”. The move was opposed firmly by France, Germany and UK — three of US’ top allies.
In 2015, Iran and six other countries reached an agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The six major powers that were involved in the deal were the P5+1 – The US, UK, France, China and Russia + Germany.
As part of the deal, Iran had agreed to restrictions put by the P5+1 countries, which would allow it to have uranium only enough to maintain the country’s energy needs without having the ability to build nuclear weapons. Though reports suggested that Iran was abiding by the rules of the pact signed in 2015 by then President Barack Obama, many conservative US leaders strongly believed that the deal did not have enough teeth to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.
Trump rubbished the deal on many occasions and went on to say that he did not believe that the “rotten structure” of the deal could prevent Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons.
The world’s eyes are now on West Asia. There have been heated exchanges between Tehran and Washington since the airstrikes on the US embassy in Iraq by Iran’s proxies. The fight has turned bitter with Soleimani’s killing.
Messages of restraining from war poured in from all quarters as officials of both the US and Iran have come out with strong statements suggesting a likely war. However, Washington and Tehran cannot afford to go to war in West Asia, even if both sides take big risks to save face.
In all likelihood, Iran will resume its normal tactics of using proxies and disguising its attacks. Showing signs of de-escalation, it has avoided a direct hit on the US bases in its attacks as an answer to Soleimani’s killing.
Should there be an escalation in the conflict, despite interventions and warnings from experts and world leaders, the already-destabilised region will only end up becoming more volatile.