Mounting tensions in the Middle East Following U.S. Killing of High-ranking Iranian Military leader

800px Funeral of Qasem Soleimani Tehran Mehr 08

Written by: Jamari O’Neal, Hampton University

Qasseem Soleimani

On Friday, January 3, 2020, missiles struck the Baghdad International Airport killing several people.[1] Among those killed were Iranian General Soleimani, head of the Quds Force (QF) and his top Iraqi ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). This marks an escalation between longtime rival countries that have historically restricted their conflicts to covert operations and battles between proxies.

The QF is an elite subsection of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), analogous to a combination of the C.I.A and Special Forces. Control of QF made General Soleimani one of the most influential figures in the Middle East. He was a central figure in the Axis of Resistance that fought against the U.S. presence in the Middle East, and during his twenty-two years as head of the QF, Soleimani worked to further Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. He has orchestrated assassinations, armed allies, and trained militias that have killed thousands of Americans. [2] First rising to prominence during the Iran-Iraq war, Soleimani’s efforts against the West and Israel have earned him the adoration of many Iranians, including Ayatollah Khamenei who hailed Soleimani as “a living martyr of the revolution.” Recently, Soleimani has coordinated Iran’s efforts to aid Bashar Al-Assad’s forces against rebels and U.S. backed Syrian militias during the Syrian Civil War.[3]  Despite a mutually antagonistic relationship, the U.S. has, at various points, formed uneasy partnerships with Soleimani to combat terrorist organizations. In the wake of 9/11, an alliance formed with the goal of combating the Taliban. Nearly a decade later, the QF backed Iraqi militia played an instrumental role in driving ISIS out of Iraq alongside U.S. forces.[4] However, both of these partnerships collapsed soon after their formation due to U.S. and Iran’s conflicting interests in the Middle East.[5]

The Strike

On December 27, rockets were fired at the Iraqi K1 military base in Kirkuk, killing Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi born U.S. citizen working as a civilian contractor who served as an interpreter.[6] The missile strike also injured Iraqi and U.S. troops. The U.S. blamed Iranian backed Iraqi Militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah for the attack. Kata’ib Hezbollah is believed to have been behind similar strikes that have occurred over the past several months. In response, the U.S. launched an air strike that killed twenty-five Kata’ib Hezbollah militiamen and wounded dozens more. This air strike was widely condemned by Iraqi officials. In response, members of Kata’ib Hezbollah besieged the U.S. embassy and threatened to remain camped outside until the U.S. left Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah withdrew after less than twenty-four hours, stating that they had made a deal with the Iraqi Prime Minister to work through parliamentary means to expel U.S. troops.[7] Iraqi frustration over the U.S. air strike was the likely reason why they offered little resistance when Kata’ib Hezbollah entered the Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy is located.  Kata’ib Hezbollah and the PMF they are legally a part of the Iraqi military. The U.S. attack that killed 25 Kata’ib Hezbollah soldiers as well as the strike that killed Muhandis were undertaken without Baghdad’s consent and are considered by many in Iraq as an breach of Iraqi sovereignty.[8]

According to the Pentagon the strike was approved by the president on the grounds that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”[9]Congress was not notified of plans for the strike prior to its occurrence Reporting from Reuters lend some support the pentagon’s statement. According to Reuters Soleimani met with Iraqi Shi’ite militia allies in October to plan attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. The goal was to goad the U.S. into military action that would turn Iraqi sentiment away from rising resentment of Iran. The implementation of these strikes would be overseen by Kata’ib Hezbollah a pro-Iranian militia founded by al-Muhandis. [10]

Leaders’ Responses

Iran’s response to the killing of Soleimani has been resolute and firey. In his first official reaction to the airstrike, the Ayatollah vowed that “a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands”[11]

Iran’s regional allies have stood by them rhetorically. Yemeni Houthis and Assad’s Syrian regime have both condemned the airstrike. Lebanese Hezbollah had the strongest response, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah saying it was the duty of resistance fighters to seek “just retribution” against “the most evil criminals in the world.” On the other hand, U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have been hesitant about supporting further U.S. action in the region. This may seem a confusing heel turn for leaders who have historically urged the U.S. to take a more aggressive stance towards Iran. However, Trump has long expressed the opinion that the U.S. is not responsible for its allies’ security and has demonstrated his lack of commitment to U.S. allies by refusing to respond to a 2019 Iranian attack on Saudi oil fields. It is likely that, worried about whether the U.S. will come to their aid, Middle Eastern U.S. allies are heeding the messaging of Iran. The IRGC has threatened that “U.S. allies who gave their bases to its [the U.S.] terrorist army that any territory that in any way becomes the starting point of hostile and aggressive acts against the Islamic Republic of Iran will be targeted.”[12]

In the week following the killing of Soleimani, Trump spoke aggressively on twitter warning Iran against retaliating. On January 4, Trump tweeted that the U.S. had “Targeted 52 Iranian sites” to be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran attacked American people or assets.[13] When asked if he would follow orders to attack cultural sites, Acting Defense Secretary seemed unwilling to commit to such an attack saying “We will follow the laws of armed conflict.” [14] On January 5, Trump tweeted that if attacked any U.S. person or target, the U.S. would “strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”[15]  According to Yale Law professor Oona Hathaway on twitter, Trump’s threat of a “disproportionate” response violates an international law requirement that “Any action taken in self-defense […] must be necessary and proportionate to the threat posed.”[16]

In an interview with NPR on January 7, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “It [the Soleimani killing] amounts to war, and we will respond according to our own timing and choice.” A statement that aligns with the predictions of experts who believe that the real response from Iran is still forthcoming. He said that Iran’s response will be constrained by international law and criticized Trump’s January 4 statement that the U.S. would respond to an Iranian attack by attacking Iranian cultural sites.[17] On January 7 Trump walked back this statement saying “I like to obey the law” in reference to accusations that targeting cultural sites would constitute a war crime.[18]Zarif also criticized of U.S. sanctions saying “the secretary of state, of all people, has said if Iran wants its people to eat, it has to listen to the United States. […] Starvation is a crime against humanity, creating individual responsibility before the International Criminal Court.” When pressed on Iran’s practice of supplying weapons and training to groups that kill U.S. soldiers Zarif brought up the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 as well as criticizing the U.S. for its role in the wars in Afghanistan and in supplying the Saudi Forces in Yemen.[19]

On January 6, Iraq parliament voted on a nonbinding resolution backed by the Prime Minister to seek the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In response, President Trump has threatened Iraq with heavy sanctions, in addition to stating that Iraq would be forced to repay the U.S. the money spent on modernizing military bases. These threats run counter to U.S. policy of the past 17 years, which has been to attempt to rebuild Iraq following the 2003 Iraq War. In Iraq there is genuine worry, many Iraqis still remember the ruinous sanctions of the 1990s.[20] Broad sanctions would also run the risk of forcing Iraq deeper into Iran’s orbit. [21] The day following the vote by the Iraqi parliament, a draft of a letter from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, was leaked. The wording of the letter appeared to indicate that the U.S. would be withdrawing from Iraq.[22] After the letter was leaked, General Milley quickly organized a press briefing to clarify that the U.S. was only repositioning troops.[23] The office of the Iraqi Prime Minister has announced that if the letter was indeed a draft sent in error Washington must send another letter to clarify the situation. [24] On January 27, Pompeo told the Iraqi Prime Minister the U.S. was open to discussing its future in Iraq, potentially signaling a willingness to decrease U.S. presence in the country. [25]

The Consequences 

The death of Soleimani creates new uncertainties in the Middle East. It is likely that its effects will be felt for years to come. 

Experts warn that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could have devastating consequences. The most obvious outcome of the U.S. leaving Iraq would be an expansion of Iranian influence in the country. This would by an undesirable outcome by many in Iraq who earlier in the year were protesting excessive foreign influence. A U.S. withdrawal could also have serious consequences for the entire region. The U.S. and NATO presence in Iraq has been a crucial component of the fight against ISIS. Were the U.S. to withdraw, it is likely that counterterrorism efforts that rely on U.S. training, funding and support would suffer.[26]

Iran has broken from the JCPOA and has begun to take steps toward becoming a nuclear power. On January 5, Iran announced its intention to step away from the final limitations placed on it under the JCPOA deal. In its announcement, Iran made clear it would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and would be willing to return to JCPOA if the U.S. lifts sanctions.[27]

Although several Iranian backed groups have vowed revenge for the U.S. strike, it is unlikely their response will be especially severe. Hezbollah, one of the groups closest to Soleimani has announced that they see the expulsion of the U.S. military from the Middle East as the ultimate goal and emphasized that their response will focused on the military not U.S. civilians. Currently, Hezbollah is focused on trying to form a government in Lebanon’s parliament and do not wish to become embroiled in a conflict that could destabilize their rule.[28]

Immediately after the killing of Soleimani the U.S. acted to protect its people and interests in the Middle East. Early on January 3, U.S. time the State Department warned Americans attempting to leave the region citing “heightened tensions”. The Pentagon has ordered roughly 4,500 troops to the Middle East.[29] Another 3,000 troops have been put on alert for future deployment.[30]

Experts on the region have said it is unlikely the situation will devolve to a full war due to Iran’s reliance on asymmetrical warfare. Iran has a history of absorbing blows and retaliating months or years later with carefully calibrated strikes.[31] “What’s more likely is sustained proxy attacks against U.S. interests/allies regionally and even globally,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, in a Twitter posting.[32] Additionally, in America high public opposition (76% of the public) to war with Iran precludes its likelihood.[33] It is also likely that Iran, a country with a history of advanced cyberwarfare will retaliate by striking at both civilian and military targets belonging to the U.S. and our allies.[34]

If Iran does choose to retaliate through more indirect methods, it is likely the QF will be involved. It is, however, less likely that the killing of Soleimani will significantly impact the operation of the QF.  Evidence suggests that in a well-institutionalized organization, the availability of trained replacements means that setbacks suffered from the loss of a leader are minimized.[35] This appears to be the case with the QF. Soleimani’s replacement, Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaai has served as the deputy commander of the QF since 1997 and is familiar with the force’s operations. According to experts familiar with the IRGC, Qaai is well-versed in the operations of QF and was likely selected to ensure continuity. Qaai is likely to continue the QF’s aggressive anti-U.S. posture as he has been previously linked to funding terrorist groups including Hezbollah since 2012. [36]

Iran’s public retaliation for the killing of Soleimani took place on January 7. That day, the Pentagon announced that Iranian missiles struck two Iraqi military bases, hosting US military and Coalition personnel. The statement from the Pentagon identified the two bases as Al-Asad and Erbil.[37] In recent years, U.S. and Danish troops have been stationed at Al-Assad base and Erbil bas has been used as a special operations hub. Both bases have served as anchor points during the war against ISIS. The attack caused traumatic brain injuries in fifty US service members.[38]In the wake of the attack on the two bases, Iranian officials offered contradictory messages. Zarif tweeted that Iran does not seek “Escalation or War” and that Iran had “concluded” its attacks against US forces.[39] However, an IRGC release stated that that “The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun”. Another IRGC statement following the attack warned that “If America responds to these attacks there will be bigger attacks on the way.”[40]Despite Iran’s bellicose statements, reporting suggests that Iraq and the U.S. were warned of the attack before it took place pointing to Iran’s desire to avoid the kind of casualties that would have led to a conventional war with the U.S.[41] Despite conflicting messaging on the state of hostilities with the U.S. all Iranian officials have been consistent calling for the U.S.’s departure from the Middle East. 

The day following the Iranian strike, Trump made his first statement to the press since the killing of Soleimani. Trump began his statement by reiterating his commitment to ensuring that Iran never develops nuclear weapons. Trump announced the U.S. would place even larger sanctions on the Iranian regime. The sanctions Trump announced are largely symbolic, they target eight individuals as well as the Iranian metals and textiles industries however they will be taken as the latest example of Trump’s aggressive and uncompromising posture towards Iran. He also made clear his intention to seek increased NATO involvement in the region.[42] This desire came as a surprise to those used to Trump’s prior vociferous denunciations of NATO. Trump ended his statement by signaling that “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”  However, the decision to increase sanctions is likely to lead to increased tensions between the two countries, as sanctions under the maximum pressure doctrine marked the beginning of the current escalation cycle.[43] It is probable that Iranian aggression will increase the circumstances that led to these escalations earlier this year, and the killing of Soleimani has most definitely magnified Iranian rage.

Works Cited:

[1] Crowley, Michael, Falih Hassan, and Eric Schmitt. “U.S. Strike in Iraq Kills Qassim Suleimani, Commander of Iranian Forces.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 3, 2020.

[2] Filkins, Dexter. “The Shadow Commander.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, September 23, 2013.

[3] Berger, Miriam. “Qasem Soleimani Helped Shape the Brutality of the Syrian War.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2020.

[4] Filkins, Dexter. “The Shadow Commander.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, September 23, 2013.

[5] Blake, Aaron. “Analysis | When the United States and Qasem Soleimani Worked Together.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2020.

[6] Davis, Aaron. “Contractor Whose Death Trump Cited Was a Naturalized U.S. Citizen Born in Iraq.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 8, 2020.

[7] Ostovar, Afshon. “Analysis | How Did the U.S. Get to the Brink of War with Iran?” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2020.

[8] “United States Killed Iraqi Military Official and Iraqi Military Personnel in the Two Recent Attacks.” Just Security, January 8, 2020.

[9] “Newsroom – Releases.” U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed January 29, 2020.

[10] “Inside the Plot by Iran’s Soleimani to Attack U.S. Forces in Iraq.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, January 4, 2020.

[11] “The Killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani: What We Know Since the U.S. Airstrike.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 3, 2020.

[12] Toosi, Nahal. “Trump’s Mideast Allies Duck Iran Confrontation.” Trump’s Mideast allies duck Iran confrontation. POLITICO, January 9, 2020.

[13] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. January 4, 2020, 5:52 PM.

[14] Starr, Barbara, Ryan Browne, and Paul LeBlanc. “Esper Contradicts Trump on Targeting Iran’s Cultural Sites.” CNN. Cable News Network, January 7, 2020.

[15] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. January 5, 2020, 3:35 PM.

[16] Hathaway, Oona. Twitter Post. January 5, 2020, 3:47 PM.

[17] “Transcript: NPR’s Full Interview With Iran’s Foreign Minister.” NPR. NPR, January 7, 2020.

[18] “Iran ‘Concludes’ Attacks, Foreign Minister Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 7, 2020.

[19] “Transcript: NPR’s Full Interview With Iran’s Foreign Minister.” NPR. NPR, January 7, 2020.

[20] Salim, Mustafa. Twitter Post. January 6, 2020, 7:50 PM.

[21] Alamiri, Yasmeen, and Gretchen Frazee. “Why Trump’s Sanctions Threat Revives Painful Memories for Iraqis.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, January 9, 2020.

[22] Tapper, Jake. Twitter Post. January 6, 2020, 4:49 PM.

[23] Cooper, Helene, and Alissa J. Rubin. “The U.S. Seemed to Be Leaving Iraq. But It Was All an ‘Honest Mistake.’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 6, 2020.

[24] “Iraq Has Received U.S. Letter Regarding Troop Withdrawal: PM.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, January 7, 2020.

[25] “Secretary Pompeo’s Call with Iraqi Prime Minister Abd Al-Mahdi – United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Accessed January 29, 2020.

[26]  Noack, Rick. “Analysis | Here’s What Might Happen If the U.S. Were to Suddenly Quit Iraq.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 10, 2020.

[27] Rubin, Alissa J., Ben Hubbard, Farnaz Fassihi, and Steven Erlanger. “Iran Ends Nuclear Limits as Killing of Iranian General Upends Mideast.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 5, 2020.

[28] Liz Sly, Sarah Dadouch. “Hezbollah Says Retribution for Soleimani’s Death Must Target U.S. Military, Not Civilians.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 5, 2020.

[29] Gibbons-neff, Thomas. “How U.S. Troops Are Preparing for the Worst in the Middle East.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 6, 2020.

[30] Berger, Miriam, and Washington Post. “US Troops Are Stationed across the Middle East and Now Could Be a Target.” Stars and Stripes. Accessed January 29, 2020.

[31] Maloney, Suzanne. “Perspective | Iran Knows How to Bide Its Time. Don’t Expect Immediate Retaliation for Soleimani.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2020.

[32] Sadjadpour, Karim. Twitter Post. January 3, 2020, 1:16 PM.

[33] Telhami, Shibley. “The U.S. Public Still Doesn’t Want War With Iran.” Foreign Policy, January 3, 2020.

[34] Tony Romm, Isaac Stanley-Becker. “’A Cyberattack Should Be Expected’: U.S. Strike on Iranian Leader Sparks Fears of Major Digital Disruption.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 6, 2020.

[35] Long, Austin. “Assessing the Success of Leadership Targeting.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November 15, 2017.

[36] “The Killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani: What We Know Since the U.S. Airstrike.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 3, 2020.

[37] “DOD Statement on Iranian Ballistic Missile Attacks in Iraq.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE. Accessed January 29, 2020.

[38]  Starr, Barbara. “First on CNN: 50 US Service Members Diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injuries after Iranian Missile Strike.” CNN. Cable News Network, January 28, 2020.

[39] Zarif, Javad. Twitter Post. January 7, 2020, 9:32 PM.

[40] “Iran ‘Concludes’ Attacks, Foreign Minister Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 7, 2020.

[41] Ayash, Kamal, and John Davison. “Hours of Forewarning Saved U.S., Iraqi Lives from Iran’s Missile Attack.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, January 14, 2020.

[42] Blake, Aaron. “Analysis | Transcript of Trump’s Iran Speech, Annotated.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 8, 2020.

[43] Ibid.