The drone strike assassination of powerful Iranian general Qasem Soleimani—arguably the Islamic Republic’s second most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—begs the observation: If Donald Trump is intent on avoiding war in the Middle East then he’s going an odd way about it.
US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”. Fellow Democratic hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders warned that the attack could spark a disastrous new war.
Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon, observed that Soleimani—commander of the Quds Force, the elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that conducts operations abroad—was a “much more powerful figure than Osama bin Laden or [former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi, where at the moment of their own deaths their power was in decline. His [power] was growing, as it has been really since the US invasion of Iraq.”
It was “hard to overstate the potential impact of this moment”, said Fletcher, who also noted that Iran had been “goading Washington, goading Donald Trump”, adding: “And of course, we don’t just have erratic leaders at the moment in Tehran, we have an erratic leader in Washington as well.”
“The strategic response [from Iran] if they’re feeling rational is probably to consolidate their position in Iraq, but elsewhere they have many more dangerous options including assassinations themselves or proxy wars or asymmetric attacks like the ones against the Saudi oil facilities,” he noted.
While the assassination of Soleimani—targeted with a drone while he was being driven from Baghdad airport by local allies from the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU)—goes down as a blunt act of war by Trump, Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior director for the Gulf in Trump’s national security council who now works at the Atlantic Council, was quoted by the Guardian as saying: “I don’t think we’re looking at a war. I think we’re looking at a series of asymmetric semi-unpredictable strikes against each other’s interests [by Iran and the US].”
“I think they’ll probably try to hit us in other parts of the world, maybe west Africa maybe Latin America to send the message that they could get us anywhere—we should never feel safe. And I think the US is going to kind of try to spread out our assault in a similar way,” she said.
Traders were spooked by the US action. Oil prices soared early on January 3, with Brent crude jumping by more than 4% to hit $69.50, the highest price seen since September, while gold and other safe-haven assets jumped. Iran’s markets were closed for the Iranian weekend. Reuters reported that foreign oil companies were evacuating dozens of employees with US citizenship from Basra in Iraq, citing company sources.
Analysts will ponder whether Trump, who often talks about trusting his gut instinct and has gutted the US national security decision-making institution during his term in office, thought through the consequences of killing Soleimani, and also Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was travelling with the Iranian general. Trump took the decision to order the strike while on holiday at his Florida resort. He made no address to explain his actions to the nation and simply tweeted out a US flag after the operation.
The Pentagon said in a statement: “General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
Later, the White House stated that the strike was a “decisive defensive action” carried out “at the direction of the president”.
“Severe revenge” vowed
Khamenei, ordered three days of mourning and vowed that the US would face “severe revenge” for the killing. A series of top Iranian civilian and military officials reiterated that warning.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a statement: “Soleimani’s martyrdom will make Iran more decisive to resist America’s expansionism and to defend our Islamic values. With no doubt, Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his revenge.”
In a statement on Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Trump’s authorisation of the strike came at a time when the US Congress was in recess. While the White House represented the operation as self-defence required by counter-terrorism operations, there will no doubt be some anger from Democrats, and perhaps from some Republicans in Congress, who will interpret it as riding roughshod over the legislature’s authority to decide on matters of war and peace. “One reason we don’t generally assassinate foreign political officials is the belief that such action will get more, not less, Americans killed,” Democratic senator Chris Murphy said on Twitter. “That should be our real, pressing and grave worry tonight.”
UK Middle East minister until last year Alistair Burt described the US move as “extremely serious”, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is no agreement as to a base of the confrontations in the region. There is a completely different narrative put forward by the Iranians for what is happening in the region to that which is put forward by the United States and others—there is no meeting between to two.”
The US embassy in Baghdad called on all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately on January 3.
“Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, the US embassy urges American citizens to heed the January 2020 travel advisory and depart Iraq immediately. US citizens should depart via airline while possible, and failing that, to other countries via land,” it said in a statement.
Troop presence conditions “violated”
Iraq’s outgoing prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, said the attack that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis was a “violation” of conditions for the US troop presence in his country.
In a written statement, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qassem Suleimani. Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry stated: "We consider the killing of Soleimani as a result of an American missile strike in the vicinity of Baghdad as an adventurous step that will lead to increased tension throughout the region. Soleimani devotedly served the cause of protecting Iran’s national interests. We express our sincere condolences to the Iranian people."
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called for peace and stability in the Middle East as well as respect for Iraq’s independence and territorial integrity. All sides should exercise calm and restraint, Geng added.
Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, said the targeted assassinations violated international human rights law.
In a Twitter thread, she said the US would need to prove the individual targeted constituted an imminent threat to others. “An individual’s past involvement in ‘terrorist’ attacks is not sufficient to make his targeting for killing lawful.”
On the White House statement on the airstrike, Callamard added: “The statement fails to mention the other individuals killed alongside Suleimani. Collateral? Probably. Unlawful. Absolutely.”
The strike came shortly after the ending of a two-day siege of the US embassy in Baghdad by a mob of PMU militants and their supporters angry at US air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, which were a response to militia attacks on Iraq bases, one of which killed a US contractor. The Pentagon accused Suleimani, who it claims was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US servicemen in Iraq, of being behind it.
Bolton tweets “congratulations”
Former national security advisor to Trump, arch foreign policy hawk John Bolton, tweeted his “Congratulations to all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani. Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran's malign Quds Force activities worldwide. Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”
Before Trump announced in September that he had been dismissed from his post (although Bolton has maintained he resigned), Bolton was an avid supporter of the US president’s attempt to throttle Iran’s economy with sanctions. Referred to as an “economic war” by the Iranians, the strategy is aimed at forcing Iran to the table to negotiate a degrading of its role in Middle East affairs, including tighter controls on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programmes and banning of its support for various militias in conflict zones of the region.
Hours after Soleimani’s death, his position was filled by a deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Iranian media reported.
The US said on January 3 it had deployed 750 airborne troops to Kuwait as a rapid reaction force available for use in Iraq. Officials added up to 3,000 could be sent in the coming days. US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on January 2 more militia attacks were expected and the US reserved the right to take pre-emptive action to stop them.