At a late hour in the night between the 2nd and the 3rd of January, close to Baghdad International Airport, on the road connecting the airport to the city, and following President Trump’s direct orders, an US drone hit the convoy transporting the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. He had been, ever 1999, the commander of the “Al-Quds Force” - a special unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (“Pasdaran”) responsible for foreign operations. Why him?
Reporting directly to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, the spiritual father, strategist, planner and implementer of the “export of revolution” policy in the region, main coordinator of military, intelligence and operational activities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, mentor and beacon for all paramilitary groups, which the Iranian regime organized, financed, endowed and managed all over the Middle East and beyond it, a fierce adversary of the USA and of Israel, Soleimani was considered, after the supreme leader Khameney, the most powerful man in Iran and the genius behind all operations that, following the Islamic Revolution, were carried out by Iran against the interests of the USA and its regional allies.
Qasem Soleimani (middle)
The attack led to the instant death of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis - the deputy chief of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia alliance, the Popular Mobilisation Committee (Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi) and commander of the Hezbollah Brigades, which are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces - as well as to the death of twelve members of their security team. One day later, on the 4th of January, the US and Iraqi media announced, unofficially, that a second drone strike took place and led to more loss of human lives. The attack targeted a location of the Iraqi militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, another group affiliated to the Popular Mobilisation Committee, which the USA designated as a terrorist organization.
The importance of general Soleimani’s position and role in the Iranian military and intelligence apparatus were shown not only by the reactions coming from the Iranian leadership, who vowed to revenge the death of the dignitary, but also by the fact that just hours after the US strike, ayatollah Ali Khamenei signed the decree that appointed Soleimani’s successor at the head of the Al-Quds Force – Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, who was Soleimani’s right hand, well known for his military expertise and also for his aggressive hostility towards the USA and Israel.
General Ismail Qaani, successor of Soleimani
Reactions Following the Attack
The reactions and declarations following the death of Qasem Soleimani were equally numerous and dominated by concerns, and it is expected they will continue as the consequences of the US strike will crystallize. Here are some of the comments and opinions expressed in the hours following the event:
- - the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani warned that “there is no doubt that the great nation of Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge on this gruesome crime from criminal America”;
- - the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that “the brutality and stupidity of American terrorist forces in assassinating Commander Soleimani... will undoubtedly make the tree of resistance in the region and the world more prosperous. […] The US strike is an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”.
- - in Baghdad, the Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr ordered the reactivation of the resistance faction “Mahdi Army” and asked it to be ready for action at any moment;
- - shouting “death to America”, thousands of citizes publicly protested in the Iranian capital, as well as in other cities in Iran;
- - in Moscow, minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov and the Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev launched severe warnings regarding the “reckless” consequences of the US operation, which threatens to translate into a serious escalation of the tensions in the region. The two Russian dignitaries said that the step taken by the USA “is fraught with grave consequences” and it “won’t be forced to wait for a response”;
- - in Brussels, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel launched an appeal in the name of the European community to stop the violence and aggravation in the entire Gulf region. The European dignitary also said that “the risk is a generalised flare up of violence in the whole region and the rise of obscure forces of terrorism that thrive at times of religious and nationalist tensions”;
- - in Berlin, the German government spokesperson, Ulrike Demmer said that the action taken on the 3rd of January caused “a dangerous point of escalation”. She also urged for “prudence and restraint” in order to find a diplomatic solution to all disputes;
- - the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Dominic Raab expressed his country’s concern and called all the involved parties to act in order to de-escalate the situation generated by the elimination of general Soleimani;
- - the announcement of the death of the Iranian general caused a 4% increase in oil prices on the hydrocarbon market;
- - the leader of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah committed to “meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins who killed the martyr Qasem Soleimani”;
- - in Baghdad, prime minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi condemned the assassination of the Iranian official saying that the attack that killed the latter was a “flagrant violation” of the legal framework regulating the US military presence in Iraq. The prime minister also said that the escalation risks “triggering a destructive war in Iraq”;
- US experts and analysts on the Middle East and Iran were unanimous in labelling the killing of the Iranian general as the most important US success for the past decades, even more important than the capture of the Jihadist leaders Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and yet a conflict generator since the victim was one of those people supported by a society and a military with extensive experience in waging war, hostile to the USA and its policy.
How Could Iran Respond?
All the reactions and stances following the death of general Soleimani from both officials in Tehran and representatives of political and military groups in the pay of the Iranian regime constantly cited revenge and punitive measures against the USA. This insistence, under such circumstances, made analysts, politicians and media ask an inherent question: what kind of action would Iran take as a retaliation for the operation on the 3rd of January, whose victims were the commander of the “Al-Quds Force” (the special unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - “Pasdaran”), the leader of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia alliance, Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy chief of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi) and the twelve members of their security team?
It is worth mentioning that a virtual front including objectives that might become targets covers a large area that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as to the South of the Arabic Peninsula, all the way to the Indian subcontinent. This area includes the waters of the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman, and is packed with (deployed) forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the backbone of the Iranian Armed Forces that includes the Al-Quds Force, whose commander used to be general Qasem Soleimani. At the same time, this area is also “host” to a significant US military presence - mainly maritime - which, from an Iranian perspective provides at least 30 potential targets.
On land, Iran already has national armed forces or militias under its control - in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, that can be quickly used in a conflict. Depending on the circumstances, Tehran can expand its area of interest up to Afganistan and Pakistan. Seeing that it has at its immediate disposal a lot of resources, both human and strategic, as well as a vast geographical area, it is difficult to say where will Iran strike back and what will be its targets. It is also difficult to answer the question whether the Iranians will use forces of their own, without claiming the retaliatory actions taken against the US presence and interest, or will use non-Iranian forces who are spread on a vast regional and sub-regional geographical area.
Specialists, strategists and analysts that have paid attention to this conflictual matter are sceptical regarding the prospect of a direct military confrontation, claiming that the strategic and tactical approach of the Iranian Armed Forces is based on the principle that Iran doesn’t whish to directly engage its enemy, favouring instead a series of swift, dispersed, targeted actions which do not provide enough incentive for the enemy to undertake massive counter-offensive operations, but which have a wearisome and demoralizing effect. The Iranians could also destroy airborne drones, without actually causing loss of human lives, or launch “unidentified” mines in the waters of the Gulf, or attack logistics, energy and economic infrastructure in regional states that are USA’s allies, without claiming the actions and admitting ownership. The Iranians are aware of the fact that engaging in a direct and extensive confrontation with US’ war machine would most likely mean losing the entire war.
We don’t need sophisticated analyses to understand that, should a war of attrition start, the USA would gradually fight back, employing a strategy around Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate a high official belonging to the Iranian political and military elite, a strategy that is not destined to fight a war of attrition indefinitely, but to accelerate a solution that eliminates Iran from the balance power and influence in the Gulf area and the entire Middle East region.
On the other hand, one should not ignore the fact that ever since the investiture of the theocratic regime, over 40 years ago, with the exception of the war with Iraq, all the other conflicts that Iran was involved in were asymmetric, where Khomeini’s regime invested resources - human, logistics and technological, leaving in the background the implementation of a strategy to prepare the country – the human resource, militarily, financially, the economy – for an eventual “classic”, large-scale and direct war with the USA. Huge efforts were made by Iran in two fundamental areas: building a vast “proxy” network and developing a nuclear programme that serves a military purpose.
Based on the above, it is possible that one of the levers Tehran might use in the very near future to be one of its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, or Syria. In parallel, raids in the regional maritime waters and violent operations against one or more of the Arab states in the Gulf area are possible.
On a longer term, Iran doesn’t have the interest, or the necessary potential to engage in large-scale warfare with the USA. Taking advantage of the non-conflictual relationships it has, to certain extents, with major global powers such as the Russian Federation, China, Turkey or the European Union, as well as with states or groups of states in the EU, Iran will take action - political, economic, propaganda - to discredit the US international policy, especially in the light of this year’s presidential elections.
Iranian Patrol Vessel in the Gulf Waters
Warnings, Threats and Good Offices
The 5th of January was the day when, in the presence of the supreme spiritual leader and several thousand Iranian and Iraqi Shiites, Tehran hosted the funerals of general Soleimani and the other victims of the US strike on the 3rd of January.
Iran raised the red vendetta flag that has embroidered, with a golden thread, the name Husayn, the third Imam of Shia Islam, grandson to the Prophet and the son of the famous caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib, killed in 680 AD by the armies of the caliph Muawiyah, during the legendary battle of Karbala and worshiped as “the Martyr of Martyrs”. Hoisting the red flag means vengeance and, according to tradition, it will only be dropped after the vengeance is complete.
President Hassan Rohani announced his country’s decision to abandon all the commitments to the terms of the JCPOA.
The Parliament in Baghdad, mostly Shiites, authorized the Iraqi government to ask that all US military forces (over 5000 troops) deployed in this country leave its territory. As a reaction, the leader in the White House stated that the US military forces will only leave Iraq when the Arab country has paid the USA all its financial, logistic and military expenses since the removal Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.
It is too early to issue scenarios and prognosis regarding the unpredictable evolutions of this emerging conflict in such a sensitive area of the Middle East. We can state, though, that before it takes an irreversible turn, the new conflictual “dossier” of the Arab-Persian Gulf will go through a phase of bellicose statements, intense exchange of warnings, accusations and mutual threats, accompanied by external, regional, and extra regional offers of political and diplomatic good offices and mediations that are meant to stop this new volcano from erupting, a volcano that threatens the area and the world in the beginning of this third decade of our century.
With what results, we will know in the following weeks if not days.