The killing on Friday of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, signals a radical escalation in Washington’s stand-off with Iran, one some analysts warn could endanger US troops and their allies in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Iran has vowed to avenge the death of the 62-year-old general, who was assassinated as he left Baghdad airport alongside key members of local Iran-backed militias early on Friday in a drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump.
General Soleimani was widely regarded as the second-most-powerful figure in Iran behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, who warned that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack.
Soleimani had assembled a network of powerful and heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep. His targeted killing has caused alarm around the world, amid fears that Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region could spiral into a far larger conflict.
“We have woken up to a more dangerous world,” said France’s deputy foreign minister, Amélie de Montchalin. Russia, a key ally of Iran in the Middle East, blasted “an adventurist step that will increase tensions throughout the region”.
The assassination marks a major escalation in the stand-off between Washington and Iran, a relationship that has lurched from one crisis to another ever since Trump pulled the US out of a landmark Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor.
“What the Trump administration has done is rewrite the rules of engagement with Iran,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Up until now, the military action on both sides had been mostly covert, without taking responsibility. But now the US has gone ahead and publically announced it assassinated one of the top figures in Iran’s political and military establishment,” Geranmayeh told FRANCE 24.
“Therefore this opens up a whole new space for Iran to take retaliatory actions against senior American personnel in the Middle East or elsewhere,” she added.
As Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy at the London-based Centre for European Reform, argued in a Twitter post, targeting non-state terrorists such as al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden or the Islamic State (IS) group’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is “v[ery] different from killing [a] senior official of [an] internationally-recognised state”.
The brazen strike marked a “[b]ig escalation by Trump, & a lawless step that increases risk to US & allies,” Bond added.
No doubt #Soleimani was v bad actor, w much blood on his hands. But killing non-state terrorists eg bin Laden or Baghdadi v different from killing senior official of internationally-recognised state. Big escalation by Trump, & a lawless step that increases risk to US & allies.
— Ian Bond (@CER_IanBond) January 3, 2020
“It’s very difficult to overstate just how important this killing is,” stressed FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Lebanon, Leila Molana-Allen, describing the strike as “the equivalent of assassinating the head of the CIA on foreign soil”.
She added: “This is a hugely humiliating blow for Iran, given that Soleimani was such an important and such a popular figure – they will be forced to retaliate.”
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said it in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond. But just what those decisions involve in practice is anyone’s guess.
Analysts say the slain commander’s Quds Force, along with its stable of paramilitary proxies, has ample means to launch a multi-pronged response.
While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, its elite forces have built up a ballistic missile programme and can strike asymmetrically in the region through proxy militias like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels – a network Soleimani spent the past two decades building, training and arming.
As the head of the Quds, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, where he played a key role in turning the tide of the country’s civil war in favour of Bashar al-Assad.
Soleimani then rose to even greater prominence by coordinating the Shia militias that bore the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq.
US officials say the Quds Force under Soleimani also taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use deadly roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs ) against US troops after the invasion of Iraq – allegations Iran has denied.
The slain general, who also cultivated ties with Hamas and other hardline Palestinian factions, was regarded as a particular threat by Israel, Washington’s main ally in the region.
“Among the pro-Iranian factions across the region – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and even Afghanistan – he was viewed as a hero, and there is going to be a lot of pressure in those factions to avenge his death,” said Borzou Daragahi, international correspondent for UK daily The Independent, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was among the first to call for Soleimani to be avenged.
“Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins… will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.
Gaza-based Hamas official Bassem Naim wrote on Twitter that the assassination “opens the doors of the region to all possibilities, except calm & stability. USA bears the responsibility for that”.
In Baghdad, the commander of a major Iran-backed militia urged all Iraqi factions to join forces and expel foreign troops from the country.
“We call on all national forces to unify their stance in order to expel foreign troops whose presence has become pointless in Iraq,” said TV Hadi al-Amiri, who heads the Badr Organisation militia and also leads the second-largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament.
US troops in harm’s way
Daragahi said it was unlikely Iran would respond in a way that risks sparking a full-blown war the Iranian military would be ill-equipped to fight.
“If they do respond in a military way it will be in a clandestine and asymmetric way that is deniable – unless this assassination is such a game-changer that it even changes those rules,” said Daragahi.
In interviews with US media, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration had taken steps to fortify its assets in the region and was prepared for any possible retaliation, including a cyberattack.
But Daragahi warned that US troops in the region remained dangerously exposed.
“The problem is that US troops are in harm’s way across the Middle East, and it’s not clear yet whether the US administration has gamed out what it was going to do in response [to Iranian retaliation],” said Daragahi.
“US troops in Syria are looking increasingly vulnerable – there’s a few hundred of them in isolated bases; US troops in Afghanistan already are coming under near-regular assault by the Taliban and Iran could help in those attacks; and US forces in Iraq already under pressure from Shia militia and ISIS [IS group] remnants could also come under sustained attack.”
Military personnel are not the only US citizens at risk. US nationals working for foreign oil companies in the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra were rushing to the airport on Friday, the country’s oil ministry said, hours after Washington urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately”.
The State Department said the US embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters earlier this week, remained closed and all consular services had been suspended.
Precipitating a US exit from Iraq could be part of a more long-term Iranian strategy in response to Friday’s strike, said Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Such a strategy would involve “changing the tide against the United States in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where local actors may now more forcefully demand that US military personnel withdraw from these countries”, she explained, noting that “this is already a hot topic of debate” in Iraq.
The killings of Soleimani and his Iraqi ally Mahdi al-Muhandis, a prominent Iraqi militia leader involved in the attacks on the US embassy, have further strained US relations with Iraq’s government, which is regularly torn between its alliances with Washington and Tehran.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the country’s caretaker prime minister, condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq” and a “blatant attack on the nation’s dignity”.
Lamenting “a dangerous escalation” that threatened to ignite a destructive war in Iraq and the region, Abdul-Mahdi said the airstrike was an “obvious violation of the conditions of US troop presence in Iraq, which is limited to training Iraqi forces” battling the Islamic State group.
‘The game has changed’
Far from limiting their role to training, US defence officials have suggested they are prepared to engage in more assertive military action in Iraq over the coming months.
“The game has changed,” Defence Secretary Mark Esper warned on Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq would be met with US military force.
In justifying the decision to take out Soleimani, Pompeo told US media on Friday that the slain commander had been planning an “imminent” attack on US interests in the region, without elaborating.
The rationale and timing of this change of strategy, coming at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the Congress and a re-election campaign, has drawn a lot of scrutiny.
“It seems that President Donald Trump, desperate for some kind of diplomatic victory ahead of the 2020 election, made a political decision to do an assassination that, frankly, the US and Israel could have carried out many times in the past but refrained from doing for fear of unintended consequences,” said Daragahi.
Trump’s would-be challengers from the Democratic Party have criticised the president’s order to assassinate Soleimani, with Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, saying Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” and left the US “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East”.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, warned against putting “the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions”.
Critics have also noted that Soleimani’s assassination could be the final nail in the coffin of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, with Tehran now widely expected to announce a significant expansion of its nuclear activities in retaliation.
The White House’s strategy of securing a better nuclear deal through coercive sanctions “is now formally dead”, tweeted Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser at the State Department, adding that the strategy had instead “led [the] US into hot conflict with Iran”.
Maximum pressure strategy of sanctions changing. #Iran and producing a new nuclear deal is now formally dead. It has led US into hot conflict with Iran
— Vali Nasr (@vali_nasr) January 3, 2020
Trump’s allies, on the other hand, have responded enthusiastically, praising the White House’s decision to fight violence with violence.
“Wow – the price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a close confidant of Trump, wrote on Twitter, adding: “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more.”
Reflecting on the changing US strategy, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh said the Trump administration “may have decided the strength of this signal of US resolve, and removing the hardliner Soleimani from the equation, was worth the risk of the next weeks of chaos and retaliation”.
This “emphatic and game-changing signal from the US [was] made with the belief that the consequences will be unknowable, but probably manageable”, he added, though warning: “One certainty will be that Tehran will seek to exact a price in a way that shatters that belief.”