07 January 2020

Middle East: consequences of General Soleimini’s death for Iran and Iraq

Claudiu Nebunu

Undoubtedly one of the most tense and important moment for Middle East’s situation for the past years, General Qassem Soleimini’s death has surprised many people… not just in Middle East! A transparent and claimed action against Iran’s symbol was unlikely to happen, both in terms of its organization and possible consequences. Soleimani’s death will eliminate any disputes in the Iranian politics, as both moderates and conservatives will only focus on blaming the American strike. And Soleimani’s agenda on power’s protection/ the Iranian influence in the region could actually get stronger further on. The American attack is a direct declaration of war, regardless if Washington thought so or not. As we are most likely going to witness a response to that, the question would be how will Tehran choose to act?

Image source: Mediafax

What happened?

On Friday morning (January 3rd), General Major Qassem Soleimani, head of Quds Forces (elite force of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps /IRGC, which operates outside the country) was killed on the International Airport of Bagdad, in an air strike ordered by American president, Donald Trump. Soleimani was accompanied by his friend, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Iraqi Shiite Militia Kata’ib Hezbollah (not the Lebanese Hezbollah) and also no.2 in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella-organization of Iraqi Shiite militias, created back in 2014 to stop the “Islamic state” (IS), who conquered the West and North of Iraq, and was included, starting with 2016, in the Armed Forces controlled by the Iraqi government.  

This dramatic escalation took place a few days after members of militias supported by Iran attacked the US Embassy in Bagdad, on the last day of the year, some media agencies saying that the Iraqi troops responsible with protecting the diplomatic mission failed doing it completely. A week before, on December 27th, militias supported by Iran targeted an American base in Kirkuk, in North Iraq, hurting American military men and killing an American entrepreneur also, after some American air attacks on their military bases. Soleimini’s death comes when the tensions between US and Iran are extremely increased, Donald Trump entered another electoral and after some major decision against Iran aiming at isolating Tehran economically and politically.

Who was Soleimini?

Iran’s most important military personality, Qassem Soleimini was responsible for most of Tehran’s diplomatic and military efforts in the last decade, from supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, to fights against the “Islamic State” in Iraq. Born in 1957, Soleimini started his military career during the war between Iran and Iraq and became the commander of Quds Forces in 1998. While having this position, he coordinated Iran’s efforts to keep US busy in Iraq by attacking their forces, given that Tehran, included in the so-called “The Axis of Evil”, was afraid that once surrounded by Americans (present in Afghanistan too) it will become the next target of a military intervention. Starting with 2010, Soleimini has coordinated the Quds Forces and Hezbollah’s response campaign to assassinations targeting Iranian science people involved in the nuclear program: the campaign included tens of attacks or attempts in Thailand, India, Kenya, Niger and even US.

Qassem Soleimini was one of the architects of the so-called “Shiite Crescent” (or the “Axis of Resistance”), an influence sphere Tehran projected through allies and proxy forces, through Iraq and Syria up to the Mediterranean Sea.  In Lebanon, Iran’s armed arm is Hezbollah; in Syria, Tehran is allied with Bashar al-Assad, and in Iraq the Iranian influence is projected through Shia political parties and, particularly, the militias trained and armed by Quds Force.  

Directly monitored by the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Soleimani began to rebuild Iran's "imperial borders". For the second time in history, Iran has become a true regional power, extending its influence from Mediterranean’s shores to the Persian Gulf. Soleimani understood that Persians would not be willing to die on the battlefields for the Arabs, so he focused on local recruiting and the Afghans an auxiliary force. He has often praised that he can, at any time, create a militia to confront Iran's enemies. And these praises were confirmed in Iraq and Syria ... In 2013, a profile of the Iranian general, published by The New Yorker, called "Shadow Commander", described Soleimani as a powerful backstage figure. He was Shiite forces’ main leader in the Syrian civil war and designed a policy to fight the "Islamic State" in Iraq, along with extending Iran's influence in the political and administrative gap left behind. Moreover, the use of proxy groups, although not new, was taken to another level and offered Iran an immunity shield so that it could act strategically without being directly involved.

Soleimani in the eyes of (some!) Iranians and Iraqis…

After the implementation of this security architecture that prompted Iran to support Bashar al-Assad's government and develop a comprehensive approach to Iraqi politics, Tehran's influence was projected at enemies’ door, Saudi Arabia and Israel. From that moment on, Soleimani launched a public campaign ... His visits in Syria were captured in photos and videos and circulated widely on social networks, getting popularity and support in Iran.

Step by step, he became famous in Iran. Even though security forces are unpopular, Soleimani, personally, was extremely successful, because the Iranians saw him as a godly patriot, a heroic figure defending the country. Over the last two to three years, he has cultivated this image more openly, posting on social media selfies in Iraq with Shiite militia members during battles against the "Islamic State." In Iran, people started thinking that Soleimani could become the next president. Also noteworthy is that not only did the Iranians see him that way, but many Iraqis and Shiites also. And, although they may not like the Islamic Republic, they se Soleimani separately as the instrument that helped Iraq from not falling under the control of the "Islamic State".

And he was not only supported by Iraqi Shiites. After terrorists took over Mosul, in 2014, while terrorist organization’s fighters were on their way to Erbil, Soleimani was the first to arrive with troops and military equipment to support Peshmerga troops in defending the Kurdish capital. There were also many cases when People's Military Forces have tacitly collaborated or been supported by air or artillery by the US forces in battles against the "Islamic State".

Why?...Why now?

Indeed, the attack surprised many Middle East developments observers and among the first legitimate questions that were raised, there are: "Why?" and "Why now?". If Soleimani was the target of American forces, perhaps this was the best moment, no one expected it, not even Soleimani's security team. Was the interference in Iraq that Soleimani had been accused of over the last two weeks so profoundly that it would have triggered this attack for security reasons?

Another clue might be Trump’s situation, who would like to divert attention from his impeachment in Congress and, therefore, a military crisis (short, dangerous, but victorious) could be the easiest way to avoid it, but also to gain a certain popularity, given the international crises that gives leaders additional popular support. Or does Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who facing a corruption trial receive a useful distraction from his legal issues before the Israeli parliamentary vote in March?

On the other hand, from an operational perspective, the drone attack was a real success. Obviously, the target should have been Soleimani, but other leaders of the Shiite militias serving Iran were also killed. But if Soleimani was been killed by chance, was the attack planned for other targets? Errors are not that uncommon, especially when information and reaction time are very limited.

Soleimani’s death- issues for Tehran…

From Iranian foreign and security strategy’s perspective, Soleimani's death is a huge failure. First of all, it ruins Tehran's reputation. If the Iranian security forces are unable to protect country's most important military officer, how could it protect other Iranian military/officials and Tehran's allies in the region? Many senior officials, from Lebanon to Yemen, should now be concerned that they may also become targets and Americans will not have second thoughts to attack them. Although Tehran’s authorities do not show weaknesses, by not protecting Soleimani, they failed sending such a message.

Moreover, since last year, Iran has been trying to prove to US that it can play bravely and is ready to take risks. Attacks against oil tanks in the Persian Gulf, as well as oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, were not followed by any US reaction. This restraint was seen by US regional allies as a weakness, a sign that Washington's security guarantees are no longer credible. At the same time, Iran has vanished any war risk. The tense situation from the beginning of the summer (June 21st) after the fall of the US drone by the Iranians was won by Tehran (all drone attacks took place on Friday... coincidence?). Now, however, Washington has used Tehran's tactics to create a manageable crisis and pushed Iran into the corner!

Furthermore, the Iranian security structure must quickly reestablish a decision-making process. Although General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's successor, has large experience (he was Soleimani's deputy since 1998), he will need time to establish close personal ties with various leaders, as Soleimani had. Moreover, Iranian counterintelligence will have to identify a leak within/among the allies. A drone attack would not be possible without viable information. Who betrayed Soleimani? One of his supporters? Or maybe someone from Hezbollah? Or maybe, and this cannot be excluded, the Iraqis helped Americans to get rid of the Iranian general? These are crucial questions that the Iranian security leadership must answer. Surely, responses will be suggested by several layoffs or maybe even "deaths".

Neither will the internal political scene can avoid Soleimani's death effects. Indeed, this is a disaster for reformists and President Hassan Rouhani. His "Policy Oriented to Peace" program is now discredited. It is more likely to have a decisive victory for anti-Western conservatives, more assertive and more oriented towards military solutions, in the parliamentary elections of February 2020. After Soleimani's death, even some moderate Iranians will vote with conservatives who think they are a better option for the difficult times Iran is facing now.

For conservatives, Soleimani's death is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, they lost a crucial pillar of Iran's regional strategy, "Axis of Resistance", which remains a cornerstone of Tehran's foreign and security policy. Such a loss cannot be easily replaced. However, this could be good news, not only because Soleimani’s "martyrdom" will increase their chances of having a good result in the parliamentary elections, but also because a powerful and popular person has been eliminated. Even belonging to the trusted allies circle, a person too influential and too intelligent can be considered a threat.

But beyond these considerations, the death of a national hero for many Iranians (not all!) increases the grouping strategy around Tehran’s "flag". This final sacrifice will mobilize the population around the regime and diverting public attention from the economic problems generated by the United States of America.

Consequences in Iraq

Since October, Iraq has been facing protests against corruption, mismanagement of government policies and bad living conditions in South and Center of the country. Protesters also rejected Iranian interference and support for the government. Iraq has never faced a crisis this big, and Iran's influence in Iraq has never been so precarious after the 2003 war. Tehran-affiliated FMPs have been accused of targeting protesters, who are mostly Shiites. The Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala were set on fire, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister who backed Iran, had to step down after the violence committed by security forces against the protesters.

However, the US attack could undermine the protest movement and gather Shiite forces. While the Iraqis could have protested against the FMP, they would likely take up defense against the United States who attacked one of their own leaders, who ran the fight against the "Islamic State". Most likely, the US has made al-Muhandis a martyr and moved the anger of Iraqi protesters from corruption to a sudden violation of national sovereignty!

Tehran’s response… and more!

While Donald Trump’s administration praised the attack, Iran swore revenge, setting off an alarm about another war in the region ... What's next?

On one hand, Iran cannot trigger an open war with the United States, while on the other, it must react in some way to save its regional power reputation facing American "arrogance." Iran can, of course, fight back, but first of all, its capabilities are limited. Secondly, any open attacks, especially if the US military is killed, would trigger a violent reaction from the White House. Obviously, an open war would be a disaster for Trump, since he wants to be re-elected, but at the same time, he won't be able to react. While there are many possibilities, one problem for Tehran is that it is uncertain how Trump will react and what is the most plausible scenario. Therefore, Iran's response is likely to be limited and, above all, symbolic.

As the mourning days pass, its revenge strikes will probably be carried out by representative forces. It has a wide range of tactical responses, including bombs, kidnapping and even cyber-attacks. This could involve operations near Iran, similar to those held in September, against oil installations in Saudi Arabia, or disruption of oil transport routes in the Gulf.

On the other hand, Soleimani was not only a leader of CGRI and a highly revered and powerful figure in Iranian politics and society. He also has from a cult of Iraqis. There are tens of thousands of FMP members who have served him. Tomorrow, for example, another demonstration could take place in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad. If they do not react, they will fear that the Americans will see this as a victory and a sign of weakness.

Trump’s “gift”…

With all this political pressure, Trump offered both the Islamic Republic and the FMP the opportunity to move Iranian and Iraqi protest movements requests away from them, to the US. What Tehran and its allies lost after the death of two military commanders will be restored through their martyrdom, used as a new legitimacy in Iraq and beyond.

But, despite all of these, any major situation escalation, as a result of Soleimani's assassination, will have worldwide effects, at stake being the oil price and major transport routes, trade in the Persian Gulf, accompanied by regional and global economic and security concerns.

Translated by Andreea Soare