Iran is not given to knee-jerk reactions, but those who run the country are extremely unpredictable nonetheless. That is why it is so difficult to anticipate what will result from the assassination of the nation's well-loved and respected Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Just a few days ago, the equally unpredictable US President publicly threatened Iran for an attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad. When the heavily-defended embassy compound was targeted by demonstrators following US air strikes in the Iraqi capital, Donald Trump responded: "Tehran will pay a very big price. This is not a warning. It's a threat." His words did indeed translate into a killing which could unleash yet another war in the Middle East with implications for world peace.
Trump's assassination of Qassem Soleimani has been called both reckless and disproportionate, involving air strikes against five targets on either side of the Iraq and Syria border followed by the drone strike killing the Iranian general. Others were also killed alongside Soleimani, including Mohammed Reza Al-Jaberi, a senior Iraqi commander and head of public affairs of the Popular Mobilisation Forces militia, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy chairman of the group.
Parallels are already being drawn between General Soleimani's death and the killing in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. He was shot dead by a hot-headed 18 year-old Bosnian who was outraged his country had been taken over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination triggered a chain reaction which escalated very quickly into World War One.
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We know that Trump is also hot-headed and prone to outlandish statements, usually on Twitter, but by ordering the US drone strike against Soleimani — without Congressional approval — some observers believe that he has turned an aggressive war of words into deadly action which can only lead to open conflict between Iran and America. While America's neocons will be salivating at the prospect of war with Iran — as will, no doubt, Israeli hawks and the Saudi regime — we have to wonder just how much thought went into the assassination.
Did Trump see the strike as a welcome distraction from his impeachment and a further excuse to rally public opinion behind him to ensure a second term as US President? Back in October 2012 he accused the then US President Barack Obama of planning to launch a war against Iran "because he can't negotiate" and thus "ensure" a second term in the White House. Whatever the truth behind Trump's claim — and we know that no war ensued — it reveals much about the mindset of Obama's successor.
It also exposes Trump as a political gambler, something which the 62-year-old Iranian general recognised. Soleimani ridiculed the US President very publicly on a number of occasions. It is quite possible, therefore, that the thin-skinned Trump ordered the drone attack on a personal whim. Whatever the reason, America is now faced with the prospect of a full-scale war with Iran which could suck the whole of the Middle East and Asia into a war of unimaginable proportions.
Trump's reaction to Soleimani's killing was to tweet the image of the US flag. While he continues to indulge his juvenile fantasies, most eyes are now focussed on Tehran, where a more mature leadership tends not to be prone to petulance.
I remember speaking to an Iranian Embassy official in London in September 1998, the day after nine of his fellow diplomats were murdered in Afghanistan where the Taliban government was in control. If ever there was a reason for going to war this was it, surely? In response to my question, though, I was told that Iran wasn't a natural aggressor and the response, whatever it was, would be measured and would certainly not lead to war.
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Since then, of course, it could be argued that Iran's involvement in the Syrian civil war has been anything but measured. The military mastermind behind the regime in Damascus has previously been cited as none other than Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Love him or loath him, though, Soleimani was universally respected by friends and foes alike for his military skills. Such was his reputation that he was considered to be one of the most powerful figures in Tehran who reported directly to the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei awarded him the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran's highest military honour, last year in recognition of his services to the country and for masterminding Iran's growing military influence across the Middle East-North Africa region. Some said that he was as influential as Iran's President Hassan Rouhani.
Will Iran lash out at America, forcing a reluctant, war-weary Iraq to become the battleground between Tehran and Washington? Or will the already serious escalation between the two countries spread far beyond Iran's neighbours?
Such questions would have been unimaginable just a few days ago, when a series of rocket attacks hit an Iraqi military base in the northern city of Kirkuk. The attack killed a US civilian contractor and wounded several American and Iraqi soldiers. Washington claimed to have proof that the Iranian-supported Kataib Hezbollah militia was responsible and warned outgoing Iraq Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi that the US would respond accordingly; it ignored Abdel-Mahdi's pleas for restraint.
In these uncertain times only one certainty remains: the Middle East does not need another war and neither does the rest of the world. Trump's reckless gamble with world peace has to be one that he loses.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.