Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq.

To that extent, the choice of location of Soleimani’s assassination is extremely significant. Not only did it allow the Pentagon to avoid launching an attack directly on Iranian soil, but it also aimed to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad. Having had General Soleimani, one of Iran’s most respected public figures, die from an American missile on its soil, is a stigma that will affect Iraq’s relations with Iran for decades to come. Washington also hopes that this aggressive act against the Quds Force will inspire Iraqi Sunnis to rise up against the Shia-dominated Iraqi state and push back against the Iranian influence in their country. Last night’s celebrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and in literally every town and city in western Iraq’s Anbar Province, were undoubtedly a welcome sight in the White House Situation Room.

Given America’s ‘winner-take-all’ political system, it would be an error to fail to recognize that President Trump’s action was largely aimed at US voters. In some of his recent comments, the president drew clear parallels between the 2012 sacking of the US consulate in Benghazi —a source of humiliation for many Americans— and his administration’s response to the recent violent demonstrations by pro-Iranian rioters outside the US embassy in Baghdad. Trump will continue to make this comparison in the coming days, hoping that his voter base will rally around him in time for November’s election.

Washington’s decision to act now was also prompted by the recent popular unrest in Iran, which, according to some reports, has resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people. These took place all over Iran, as unemployed and under-employed youths lashed out against the country’s deepening economic crisis, which has been sped up by the ever-widening American sanctions. Iran is divided, demoralized and weakened, according to the White House, and Tehran will not have the people’s support if it launches an all-out war against America or its allies in the region.

The above assumptions are not illogical. Nor, however, are they guaranteed to be accurate. Iran may be politically divided, but even the most ardent modernizer in the country is not pro-American. Additionally, Iran does not have to enter into an all-out war against the United States to exact a heavy price on the American presidency —just ask Jimmy Carter. Not only is Tehran able to attack Israel and unleash its proxy paramilitary army —Hezbollah— in Lebanon, but it is also able to destabilize the global oil markets by directing its ire against Saudi Arabia. The world had a small taste of that in September, when a series of drone attacks against Saudi Arabian oil refineries forced the oil kingdom to cut its oil production by 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in global oil production. The impact on the world’s financial markets was immediate: by Monday morning, oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War. Most important of all, the killing of General Soleimani risks plunging Iraq —a country whose Arab population is near-equally divided between Sunnis and Shias— into a civil war that will make the Syrian conflict look like a light preamble.

Lastly, if an all-out war erupts between the US and Iran, there is absolutely no reason to assume that America is any more united than Iran. The country is led by an embattled president who has been impeached by the House of Representatives and has divided, not only the country, but his own party. Undoubtedly, Americans will come together —as they always do— if a war is declared. However, Americans are highly skeptical of military intervention abroad and do not like long wars. As prior experience shows, unity tends to evaporate as wars drag on, and the US has had a bitterly mixed record when it comes to long wars in recent years. In short, there is absolutely no question that the killing of General Soleimani in the early hours of Friday changed history. Whether this change will favor Washington or Tehran remains unclear. One thing is certain: the Middle East is closer to regional war on this January day than at any time in a generation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 January 2020 | Permalink

7 Responses to Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

  1. robken says:

    Trump taking us into WWIII
    I am aghast at what must be the most egregious and stupid action by an American President. Trump is totally manipulated by Israel who have been trying to start a war with Iran for years and to get the US to do their dirty work. Well, let me tell you Iran is no push-over. This may well start WWlll Trump must be insane and should be immediately relieved of his Presidency. Our country did not authorise this attack/assassination. General Qasem Sleimani (a national hero) was fighting ISIS and Al-Qaida and Trump/America/Israel couldn’t have someone destroying their proxy army. This is of course done along-side the Israeli’s Massad who are America’s real enemy. Israel has done nothing but invade and kill and is support by the US. I don’t blame Iran, Russia and China if they show no restraint over this.
    America’s atrocities are mounting daily and yet the American people remain silent along with the Israeli and US/Israel MSM. It’s time now, before we cross the line into an all-out nuclear war, to rise-up and take our country back from Trump and thees warmongering psychopaths.

  2. captnmike says:

    Sorry but I missed the location of the death strike, seems from the above not in Iran?

    Yes this will not end well – it takes a very big man to sit down at the negotiation table and have a true give and take – all trump knows how to do is have a dick waving exercise with American lives as the chips

  3. John Dodge says:

    I sincerely hope you are mistaken. But I fear worse is ahead.

  4. chad says:

    There is a game of chess being played here and donald trump has showed he is a dumb player. There are other ways the general could have been removed without pinning the blame on america. Americans will have to leave iraq and what exactly have they gained?

  5. Chukotka Peninsula says:

    It is about time to take care of this big business…

  6. Muhammad Haroon Hashmi says:

    Very well written article. However, celebration in Baghdad were more due to the current Iraqi government policies. Demonstration were already in Baghdad against government.

  7. Anonymous says:

    He has already been replaced. If one of our military leaders dies does our capacity to wage war end? Not at all, the next guy in line steps up. We gave Iran control of Iraq the minute we invaded that country and this was totally foreseeable. Which begs the question of why we did it ? The Iran-Iraq war went on for 8 years ending in a stalemate. In 2003 we easily invaded and occupied Iraq. Iran will pose little difficulty for the US to invade and occupy as well as Iran was unable to beat the much smaller Iraq. The real problem will come in the future from a large swath of ungovernable land from Pakistan to the Lebanon which neither the US, Saudi, nor Israel will be able to control. Overreach to say the least. Balkanization of the mid east will not be pretty when it comes to the final stages.

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