General Qasem Soleimani had perhaps come to believe in his own invincibility. This once reclusive force behind Iran’s military and political outreach across West Asia had, over the last few years, acquired a unique celebrity status in his country: in 2015, an Iranian commentator noted that his larger-than-life persona was being extolled in the media, cinema and even popular music.
Perhaps, this instilled in the general a sense of hubris. For, how else can we explain that Soleimani could move in a public motorcade from Baghdad airport, despite US forces commanding the air and waters of West Asia, having just launched massive attacks on a pro-Iran militia group in Iraq a few days earlier?
In the early hours of January 3, the Pentagon announced that, on the instructions of the US president, General Soleimani, the head of the Al Quds Force, had been killed in a drone attack. Also killed with him was Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, commander of the pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah militia and deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), a conglomerate of Shia militia which came together in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS) after the fall of Mosul.
Soleimani’s killing brings to an end a remarkably successful career in regional militancy. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, he provided valuable intelligence to the Americans in their fight against the Taliban. Later, in 2007, he helped the US cope with the surge in sectarian conflict in Iraq. More significantly, he was the principal figure in the fight against IS at Mosul, coordinating the actions of US special forces, the Iraqi national army and the formidable fighters from the PMU.
The defeat and dismemberment of IS ended Soleimani’s cooperation with the Americans as they now pursued competing interests in the region. Soleimani was the main force behind the re-organisation of the Syrian national forces and the development of strategies that brought most of Syria back under government control.
But it was in Iraq where US and Iranian competition was most intense. Here, Soleimani played a central role in mobilising pro-Iran parties and ensuring successive elections of prime ministers supportive of Iran. He did this by stitching together alliances of disparate rivals, despite desperate efforts by the US and Saudi Arabia to challenge Iranian influence with their own massive resources.
Over time, Iran’s successes, founded on sectarian mobilisations, came to clash with burgeoning Iraqi nationalism, when the population increasingly came to assert its Arab rather that its Shia identity. This development was fully exploited by Saudi Arabia, which moved over the last two years to reach out to the government in Baghdad with promises of political, trade and investment support on a non-sectarian basis.
This nascent Iraqi nationalism has been most clearly manifested in the public demonstrations that have overwhelmed many Iraqi cities since early October last year.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi youth have taken to the streets to demand the complete rejection of the existing ethno-sectarian political order that distributes state assets among politicians who form temporary alliances and rule for personal benefit, while failing to provide employment, services and economic development to the people who elected them. The call from the street has been for direct, constituency-based elections, without the candidates manifesting ethnic or sectarian affiliations.
These demonstrations have had an anti-Iran character since Iran, personified by the well-publicised machinations of General Soleimani, has been viewed as the principal architect and beneficiary of the country’s corrupt political system. One slogan of the demonstrators has been: “Iran out, out, Iraq remains free”.
Iran and Soleimani personally came to be viewed even more negatively when reports emerged that the latter was advocating a tough approach to the demonstrations and that pro-Iran militants were actively confronting the protesters. The high death toll of nearly 500, kidnappings of prominent activists and injuries to several thousand protesters have been ascribed to Iran. The demonstrators have demanded that the interim prime minister who takes charge after the resignation of the caretaker incumbent, Adel Abdul Mahdi, not only be independent of all political factions and have a “clean” record, but also be distant from all foreign influences.
Amidst these agitations, the tit-for-tat skirmishes between the US and Iran have escalated. Pro-Iran militia have been regularly showering rockets on US bases and facilities to encourage American forces to leave the country now that IS has been defeated. In February, President Trump, after tweeting that the soldiers would come home soon, had then clarified that they would stay on to monitor Iranian activities.
As part of these ongoing mutual attacks, on December 27 the pro-Iran militia, Kataib Hezbollah, attacked a US base at Kirkuk in which an American military contractor was killed and some US and Iraqi servicemen were injured. In retaliation, US forces attacked units of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 militants, including a local commander.
This elicited very sharp rhetoric from the militia and from Iran. Referring to the Americans as “invaders”, the PMU statement described the US as “the prime agent of instability, chaos, tensions and fires in the region”. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which the Al Quds Force is an affiliate, asserted the “right to revenge”, while its foreign office spokesman called for the end of the US occupation of Iraq. In Iraq, the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, while condemning the attack, also asked the Iraqi government to prevent the use of Iraq by foreign parties “to settle regional and international scores” – a clear reference to the destructive US-Iran proxy war.
In response to the US bombings, the militants attacked a US base at Taji and then crossed into the Green Zone to barricade the heavily-fortified US embassy. They repeated this blockade on January 1 as well, finally dispersing due to falling public support.
The attack on the US embassy appears to have further alienated the Iraqi demonstrators from Iran. For, the militants blockading the embassy carried militia flags and portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rather than the Iraqi flag. Their slogans also stated: “Qasem Soleimani is our leader”, and, reversing the slogan of the demonstrators, said: “US out, out, Iran remain free”.
US embassy blockade
Observers have noted that, besides the protesters, even several PMU militias did not support the embassy blockade, while prominent Shia and non-Shia groups and senior government officials condemned the embassy attack. Thus, the few pro-Iran militia attacking the US embassy were effectively isolated.
A furious Trump tweeted that Iran would be held responsible for any lives lost and damage to property; he concluded: “They [Iran] will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a warning, this is a threat.” Ayatollah Khamenei got into the Twitter war by responding: “You can’t do anything. If you were logical – which you are not – you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan … have made nations hate you.”
A day later, Qasem Soleimani was killed by US aircraft as his motorcade was leaving Baghdad airport after the general had got in from either Lebanon or Syria. The Pentagon described it as a “decisive defensive action” which would deter “future Iranian attack plans”.
The killing constitutes a significant escalation in the to-and-fro skirmishes that have marked US-Iran interactions in Gulf waters and Iraq for several months. The US decision to execute the Iranian general may be because Soleimani, as the principal architect of Iran’s operations in the region, had come to personify in himself what the Trump administration saw as Iran’s “malign” activities in West Asia, activities that at every point challenged and often thwarted US interests and designs. The US had designated him a terrorist who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US personnel.
Trump’s motives for the killing
Observers believe that Trump’s order to kill Soleimani was not the result of considered reflection within the administration, but a spontaneous decision by the president while on holiday in Florida. It is possible that the siege of the US embassy in Baghdad may have been viewed by him as particularly dangerous for his interests.
The militants surrounding the embassy had proclaimed that they would continue their blockade till the embassy was finally closed and all US troops left Iraq. With these demands, the embassy siege was clearly going to be a long-drawn affair. Though the blockade was lifted on January 1 itself, Trump could not be certain it would not be revived.
This opened up two dreadful prospects for the Americans: one, there could be a Benghazi-type attack on the embassy on the lines of what had happened in Libya in 2012 when the US ambassador and other US officials were killed. Trump, in his election campaign, had sharply and repeatedly castigated the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton for this tragedy.
The other alternative was a repeat of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 when American diplomats were incarcerated for 444 days and often humiliated on global television. This event had cost President Jimmy Carter his second term.
In the face of the blockade of the US embassy, Trump, facing impeachment proceedings, may have felt it necessary to project a strong and decisive image to his core constituency, which already has strong feelings about Iran. Thus, Trump may have felt this killing would burnish his image as one who robustly upholds US interests and its dignity at all times. He would also believe that this action would effectively eclipse the killing of Osama bin Laden during the Obama presidency.
The killing has shocked most sections of international opinion. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has threatened that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” responsible for the attack. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has called it an “act of international terrorism”, “rogue adventurism” and a “dangerous and foolish escalation”. The Russian foreign minister has described it as “a reckless step” that will aggravate regional tensions.
European Union members have been more cautious in their public remarks. France’s European Affairs Minister has called for EU members to work collectively to restrain the powers in contention. Privately, most EU leaders fear this killing might decisively end the nuclear agreement and encourage Iran towards more breaches of its terms. Again, in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Iran in February, the hardliners could triumph over the more moderate supporters of President Hassan Rouhani.
In Iraq itself, the killing could encourage parliament to pass legislation insisting on the withdrawal of the 5000-odd US military personnel in Iraq. This will reduce US influence and leave Iran as the sole military force in the country. Iraq’s politicians could also use this opportunity to sustain the present corrupt order by focusing on anti-US and pro-Iran positions rather than on reform. Thus, the ethno-sectarian basis of the system will get a new lease of life by diluting the momentum and influence garnered by the demonstrators over the last three months.
The gravest concern at present is whether the killing will trigger a region-wide conflict or whether sober counsels will encourage restraint, de-escalation and eventually dialogue.
The prospects of war are very real: the Trump administration has displayed a visceral animosity for Iran and its leaders, a sentiment that is widely shared by Republicans in the House and Senate and in Trump’s core rightwing constituency. War has been avoided so far because Trump sees no advantage in embroiling the US in conflict in West Asia and sustaining US casualties. His instincts have been to bring US troops home from the region as quickly as possible.
Here his approach has clashed with that of some of his officials and the rightwing think tanks and lobbyists that advocate a robust US presence in West Asia to confront Iran, Russia and China, and, in line with Israeli interests, severely cripple Iranian influence, including, if necessary, through US military action.
Hence, Trump has been taking contradictory positions – publicly announcing troop withdrawals and then quickly issuing amendments. The inducements for course-corrections his officials have found effective are references to Iran and the wellbeing of US military personnel (and even civilian personnel) in the region. These have appealed to Trump’s populist instincts and prompted an immediate response. For instance, the killing of an American serviceman in Afghanistan had led Trump to peremptorily call off talks with the Taliban in September last year.
But this display of presidential “leadership” could have catastrophic consequences. An Iranian retaliation could seriously damage Gulf oil and gas facilities and cause the deaths of hundreds of people, including some US service personnel. Again, even if immediate Iranian retaliation is avoided, Americans in different geographical locales could be targets of clandestine assault that might not be readily ascribable to Iran. Finally, any sign of conflict will boost oil prices, crippling the economies of import-dependent nations like India.
A major effort is likely to be mounted by world powers to prevent sharp retaliatory action by Iran that will drown the region in conflict but will hardly yield a result that would be to the advantage of any of the principal parties. Over the next few days, we are likely to see President Putin make an effort at de-escalation with robust interactions with Rouhani and Trump and by proposing that his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, engage in an active bout of regional diplomacy.
While this effort will ensure that the immediate possibility of conflicts abates, there will be need for a region-wide peace process that will seek to accommodate the competing interests of regional role-players. This will be a much more complex and long-drawn out effort. A good starting point would be for external powers to cease interference in Iraqi politics and let its citizens determine their political order.
This would mean respecting the aspirations articulated by its youth in demonstrations over the last three months which include a complete overhaul of the existing order with the rejection of the sect-based spoils’ system. This will provide no space for Iran, Saudi Arabia or the US to attempt to manipulate Iraqi politics to their advantage.
Over the longer term, peace and stability in West Asia will demand an entirely new approach from the US to the region. The US propensity to use military force where diplomatic effort might have been more useful has been decried by several commentators. The most recent discussion of this subject has come from veteran US diplomat William Burns. He has castigated the American “temptation” for “magical thinking” where the US exaggerates its influence and fails to take into account obstacles as also the role and interests of other players.
In a clear reference to US ties with Iran, Burns has noted the US’s “cosmic confrontation with state adversaries”. This has involved the US in shaping a “grand coalition” against Iran which, in his view, has been “spectacularly corrosive” for US interests. He has advocated instead a fresh approach to Iran which would include an “updated nuclear deal” and pursuit of “regional co-existence” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A new US approach that prioritises diplomacy over military assault could perhaps be the best outcome from the sordid murder of Qasem Soleimani.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat