General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force has been killed in a targeted U.S. drone strike on 3 January 2020 in Baghdad’s international airport, which was approved by President Donald Trump. As well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Committee (Iran-backed Iraqi Militia Force) was killed in that air strike. Thousands of Iranian’s echoed to take revenge as ‘blood for blood’ attending Soleimani’s funeral. After three days, Iran carried out a ballistic missile attack on air bases housing US forces in Iraq, in retaliation for the US killing of Soleimani. More than a dozen missiles launched from Iran struck two air bases in Irbil and Al Asad, west of Baghdad. More than 80 US ‘terrorist’ killed in Iran’s missile attack. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said the attack was ‘a slap in the face’ for the US and called for an end to the US presence in the Middle East. President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s ‘final answer’ to Soleimani’s assassination would be to “kick all US forces out of the region”.
Iranian people reverberated ‘death Soleimani is more powerful than live Soleimani’ in his funeral. More than fifty people have been killed and 200 injured in a stampede as Iranians gathered for the burial of their commander, witch indicates how powerful and popular he was. Soleimani was a national hero and considered as ‘Second powerful Man’ behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, as well as being his right-hand man. He also acquired celebrity status at abroad as leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the IRGC, for his key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq and spreading Iranian influence in the Middle East. He was a panic of United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel. Soleimani survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past 20 years.
Despite the American success of the assassinations in terms of containing Iran, it is likely to undermine Washington’s partnerships and influence in the region. An escalation in tension with Iran is not in the interest of the US’ Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rumored to have held private talks with Tehran to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf. Since the drone strikes on its oil facilities in September 2018, Riyadh has also attempted to ease its disputes with Yemen’s Houthis and Qatar—both considered to be close to Iran. Trump’s actions could undermine these attempts at reconciliation, making its allies viable targets for Iranian retaliation instead.
Moreover, the assassinations once more highlight the unpredictability of Washington’s policies in the region, making it harder for its allies to rely on the US. Trump’s decision to kill an Iranian general was an unexpected and disproportionate escalation of the dispute. This is reminiscent of earlier abrupt policy decisions like the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and ending the support for US’ Kurdish allies in Syria. Because of this increasing volatility, US allies in the Gulf will gradually look for more stable partners like Russia, thus reducing Washington’s clout in the region.
The US also stands to lose influence in Iraq as the attacks threaten the continued presence of approximately 5,000 US troops stationed in the country. The assassinations were not only a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty but also a direct attack on the Iraqi state—of which Muhandis was an official member. Pressure from nationalists and Iranian proxies will force the Iraqi government to revise the US’ military presence in the country.
The drone strikes against Soleimani marks a pivotal moment for Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. Policymakers in Tehran are now faced with an unpredictable US president willing to resort to military action. Yet, it is also this unpredictability that has once more been brought to the attention of leaders in Gulf capitals—further damaging the US’ reliability as an ally. As Washington’s West Asia policy is being reduced to an Iran policy, Trump’s actions will impact not only Iran but also US’ future in the region.
Who was Qassem Soleimani?
Soleimani was born in 1955 in Iran’s southeastern province of Kerman. He was raised within a poor farmer’s family and worked as a construction worker. Soleimani continued his education until high school then worked in Kerman city municipality until the Iranian Islamic revolution broke out in 1979. After the success of the Iranian revolution against the Shah, he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in early 1980 which was founded by the order of the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979. He then joined the Iranian forces in its war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, where he was an officer for an Iranian military service company.
After that, Soleimani led an Iranian elite force known as Thar Allah 41 corps in Kerman city during the eight-year-long war. Following the war, he was promoted to be among the best ten military commanders of Iranian contingents spread across the borders with Iraq. Soleimani was appointed commander of the Quds Force in 1998, and promoted as general. He was tasked to protect the Iranian revolution against any coup attempt in addition to carrying out military and secret operations outside the Iranian borders. As a young man during the Iranian revolution in 1979, Soleimani began his ascent through the Iranian military receiving just six weeks of tactical training before seeing combat for the first time in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
He strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s al-Assad and Shia militia groups in Iraq. He stepped into the limelight in recent years, appearing alongside Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Shia leaders. Under Soleimani’s leadership, the Quds Force vastly expanded its capabilities, becoming a significant influence in intelligence, financial, and political spheres beyond Iran’s borders.
Soleimani emerged from the Iran-Iraq war a national hero for the missions he led across Iraq’s border. Following the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Soleimani ordered some of his Iraqi militias into Syria to defend the Assad government. During Iraq’s fight against ISIL, the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) Iran-backed Shia paramilitary units, some of which fell under Soleimani’s control – fought alongside the Iraqi military to defeat the armed group. Soleimani’s role in helping defeat ISIL made him a “national hero” and a “martyr” among the Iranian people and other Middle Eastern countries.
Soleimani was rumoured to be dead on several occasions, including in a 2006 aircraft crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of embattled Syrian President al-Assad. In November 2015, rumours circulated that Soleimani had been killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to al-Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo. More recently in October, 2019, Tehran said it had foiled a plot by Israeli and Arab agencies to kill Soleimani.
Why did the US assassinate Soleimani?
The only predictable thing about Donald Trump is his unpredictability. Months of an impeachment trial and an election year, he gave the kaleidoscope a mighty shake with arguably the most consequential decision of his presidency. Trump’s targeted killing of Iran’s ruthless military and intelligence chief adds up to his most dangerous gamble yet with other peoples’ lives and his own political fate. Trump’s strike may be the most significant calculated US act in a 40-year Cold War with revolutionary Iran. It’s the biggest US foreign policy bet since the invasion of Iraq.
US-Iran tensions have been rising since Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and began reimposing punishing sanctions. In recent weeks, those tensions have escalated. On December 27, an American contractor was killed in a rocket attack in Iraq – which the US blamed on Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, a militia belonging to PMF. The US responded on December 29 by targeting sites belonging to Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, killing at least 25 fighters.
On December 31, a rare protest unfolded at the US embassy compound in Baghdad, a heavily fortified area, with demonstrators who sympathized with or belonged to PMF attempting to vandalize the embassy. In a statement after the assassination, the US Department of Defence said Soleimani was developing plans to attack American diplomats and military members throughout the Middle East region.
Finally, Soleimani was targeted by western enemy more than two decades. He was declared a “terrorist and supporter of terrorism” by the U.S. He was among the Iranian individuals who were sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution 1747. On May 18, 2011, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on him as he was accused of providing support and arms to the Syrian regime. Also, on June 24, 2011, an official statement by the European Union said that European sanctions were imposed on three Iranian commanders of the Revolutionary Guards including Soleimani for supporting the Assad regime in his suppression to the Syrian uprising.
The author is a journalist and independent analyst in national & international politics.