Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
On January 3, 2020, Head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran, General Qasem Soleimani, and those accompanying him, were killed near Baghdad International Airport as a result of an explosion of rockets launched from a military drone.
As a consequence, military-political tensions between the US and its allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and so on), on the one hand, and Iran and its allies (Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, etc.), on the other, rose all around the Middle East
Who was Qasem Soleimani?
Qasem Soleimani was not only the author of the idea of the strengthening of Iran in the Middle East in modern times, but he also directly led the implementation of this idea and, what is more important – was successful in doing so.
It is thanks to Soleimani that despite harsh economic sanctions, Iran managed to gather a number of powerful organizations from the Middle East around itself: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, pro-Iranian forces in Syria and, especially, Iraq, the “Hussites” in Yemen and others.
These organizations, led by Iran and Soleimani personally, successfully fulfilled their tasks – repelled the attacks by the Sunni coalition formed around Saudi Arabia and the US and in many cases (Syria, Yemen, Iraq) forced them to fall back. Iran’s successful fight against Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq as well as saving the Assad regime together with Russia is attributed to the name of Soleimani.
As a result, for the first time in this millennium, Iran not only managed to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea but also to approach Israel, that it considers to be its main adversary in the region, by land. This created an existential threat for Israel.
Based on all of the aforementioned, the prestige and influence of General Soleimani grew in Iran and in the region at large. In fact, he was in charge of Iran’s foreign relations (especially in the Middle East) as well as its intelligence and military activities. Hence, many considered Soleimani to be the second most influential person in Iran after the supreme spiritual leader.
The General knew that he was being hunted as beginning from April 15, 2019 the United States had put Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of terrorist organizations. Because of this, he was moving very carefully when abroad, following all rules of secrecy: never announcing his visits, transportation routes only known to his narrow circle, never using cell phones and computers, using civilian passenger airlines and even the cars that he was using did not stand out from the others.
However, it would seem that the information leaked, nonetheless, which resulted in his death.
- Following rising tensions in the Middle East, the price of oil on the world market has increased by 4.1%;
- On January 5, 2020, the Parliament of Iraq adopted a resolution according to which US troops (about 5,000 soldiers) have to leave the territory of Iraq. The majority of the Iraqi population, as well as MPs, are Shia Muslims and they are not indifferent to Iran’s suffering. Kurdish and Sunni MPs did not participate in the vote, yet this failed to alter the situation;
- The decision of the Parliament of Iraq made the situation in the country even more complicated. At the same time, the Americans are facing a severe legal reality – the host country no longer wants them to remain;
- On January 5, 2020, Iran officially left the nuclear treaty signed with the West which means that it can and wishes to hasten its work with the aim of creating a nuclear bomb;
- After Soleimani’s death, almost daily rocket attacks commenced against the US Embassy in Baghdad and US military bases in Iraq (yet, it seems that at this stage these attacks are disorganized and spontaneous);
- As a result of the bombing of a US military base, several Iraqi citizens were wounded after which the author of the attacks – Iraqi Hezbollah, called on the Iraqis to stay away from the US bases by at least one kilometer;
- In response, the US military air force attacked the base of pro-Iranian forces located on the border between Syria and Iraq, killing five Iraqi fighters;
- The US hastily started deploying additional military equipment and manpower (thousands of troops) to the Middle East to strengthen its positions;
- US Embassies in Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrein, Kuwait and the UAE called on US citizens to leave the territories of these countries (it would seem that there is respective intelligence information to make such a call);
- Ankara did not allow US air forces to use the Incirlik Air Base (which Washington will be noting for future reference);
- Moscow took Iran’s side, as expected;
- The Government and armed forces of Israel switched to an emergency mode of operation.
How Could Iran Respond to the Killing of Soleimani?
Given its nature, Iran cannot and will not leave the attack against General Qasem Soleimani unanswered.
Iran, which possesses highly developed missile systems, also has a long list of potential targets, namely:
- US military bases within and outside the region;
- US diplomatic missions and citizens (hence the Americans are already being evacuated from Iraq);
- US allies in the region – Israel (which has already brought its armed forces to readiness), Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others, as well as their infrastructure (oil processing plants and pipelines);
- Tankers loaded with oil in the Persian Gulf (direct attacks on ships are possible as well as the blockade of the Gulf itself, further increasing the oil prices on the world market);
- Commencing cyber-attacks;
- Military and political activation of the organizations supporting Iran (Hezbollah, Hussites, pro-Iran forces in Iraq, others) in the Middle East;
- Other targets (military command of Iran has already stated that they have selected 53 targets).
How Likely is it for a Large-Scale Conflict to Start?
In reality, a medium intensity military conflict between the US and Iran is already apparent, carrying a risk of serious escalation.
The only thing that can be excluded at this point is the launch of large-scale land military operations by the United States against Iran, as the US is not prepared for this – it does not have the required military forces and equipment in the region and is also unwilling to shoulder large casualties without which it would be practically impossible to conduct a land operation against Iran. Hence, the focus of the US is mainly on targeted attacks.
At this stage, all depends on how the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran decides to respond to the death of General Soleimani.
If their decision is followed by significant casualties among US citizens or seriously harms Washington’s prestige, the response measures by the US will be very painful for Iran. US President Donald Trump already hinted at this when he said that 52 targets have been selected on the territory of Iran to be bombed if the situation further escalates.