On Friday, Iran’s notable military figure, Major General Qasem Soleimani of the state’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), operating under the direct auspices of Ayatollah, was killed along with another high-ranking commander in the state a United States airstrike on Baghdad airport in Iraq. This marks one of the most significant moments in the fragile geopolitical environment of the region in recent years. Soleimani led the Quds Force, IRGC’s foreign operations wing, and was the architect of Iran’s expansions into the Syrian civil war and beyond. While Donald Trump’s administration hailed the strike, Iran promised revenge, alarming another impending war in the region.
This dramatic escalation came days after supporters of Iran-backed militias breached the US embassy in Baghdad, with reports suggesting that Iraqi troops tasked with protecting the diplomatic mission did not do so anymore over a point. A week earlier, on December 27, Iran-backed militias had attacked a U.S. base in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, injuring U.S. troops and killing a U.S. contractor.
Soleimani’s death comes at a time of increased tensions between the United States and Iran, with Trump, who has now entered an election year, having worked to isolate Iran both economically and politically in making important decisions as to emerge from Iran’s nuclear deal. In addition, Trump, as shown by comments on the assassination of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October in Syria at the hands of the United States military, has shown that he prefers to go after high-profile names, rather than intermediaries or deputies leaders of terrorist groups or militias, by a more marketable national security stance, distinguishing themselves from their predecessors in the White House.
However, with soleimani’s assassination, the United States has entered an area of unknowns in its dealings with Tehran. Soleimani was not only a leader of the IRGC, but in recent years had become a revered and extremely powerful figure in Iranian politics and society. In 2013, a profile of him in The New Yorker, titled “The Shadow Commander,” he highlighted Soleimani’s role as a powerful behind-the-scenes figure. He was the chief director of the Shiite power in the Syrian civil war, designing a policy to fight ISIS and at the same time expanding Iran’s reach into the political and geographical vacuums left behind. This architecture saw Iran support the besieged government of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and develop a comprehensive scope around Iraq’s policy (Soleimani even held meetings in Baghdad with Iraqi officials rather than the country’s prime minister), leading Tehran’s influence at the doorof his enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Since then, Soleimani had operated with pleasure. His trips to the front line in Syria were documented in photos and videos, and circulated widely on social media as he developed a solid base of support at home. While gaining popularity and support in Iran, specifically among conservatives, his actions also caused the loss of countless lives in the region.
In the midst of all this, Soleimani’s murder pushes the similarity of a direct armed escalation in the region between the United States, its interests and Tehran more than ever. The assassination may end up joining divisions within Iranian politics, with moderates and conservatives converging on the condemnation of the U.S. strike. Soleimani’s agenda of extending Iranian power across the region can, in fact, be further strengthened. He can become the martyr of the Iranian cause, backed by the existential threat facing the headquarters of Shia Islam from the poles of power in both Riyadh and Jerusalem. The fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite being adversaries, consider the momentum against Iran to be a point of convergence, the public determination of Tehran to retaliate against the general’s death. For Iran, this could well become a direct u.S. declaration of war, whether it was or not Washington.
For the United States, the Trump administration, which faces heat in an impeachment orchestrated by Democrats and other domestic political outreach, national security successes like Baghdadi, and now Soleimani, can give the presidency greater influence in the looming election later this year. Comparisons, such as an attack on the Baghdad embassy being different from benghazi’s in Libya under the Obama administration in 2012 where the U.S. ambassador died, may well be the stance Trump was looking for, and he has now successfully designed. However, the optics are different. Iran, despite perceptions to the contrary, is a state with accumulated resistance, proven survival instincts despite isolation, and a competent army. A war will not be in any way, it will be a walk.
Any major escalation as a result of the Soleimani massacre will have global repercussions, with crude oil prices and major oil and commercial routes in the Persian Gulf at stake, along with regional and global concerns economic security.
Kabir Taneja is a fellow in the Strategic Studies Program of the Observer Research Foundation
The opinions expressed are personal
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