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What’s next after Soleimani’s assassination?

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Forces, who was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on 6 January 2019. [IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT - Anadolu Agency]
Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Forces, who was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on 6 January 2019. [IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT - Anadolu Agency]

There is no doubt that the assassination of Qassem Soleimani shook Iran and its proxies in four Arab countries. The man was not an ordinary military official. He led the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was effectively the second in command in a mullah-led state that managed to expand his country’s influence beyond its borders to reach four major Arab countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen). He managed Iran’s expansion project in the region and the dream of reviving the Persian Empire. In order to achieve this, Soleimani and the troops and proxies he commanded drowned Arab countries in blood.

He is the one who sowed sectarian strife and pushed Iran’s doctrinal expansion in the region. This is something that not even Ayatollah Khomeini himself could implement, although he did plant its seeds.

This man of blood — too often the blood of the Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis — acted like a friend of these Arab countries, preening himself like a peacock. He moved easily between the Arab capitals without being hindered by anyone. His movements were known and monitored by the Americans and Zionists, but they left him alone to continue his project in order for them to reap the benefits.

They invested in him and benefitted from him eliminating Daesh in Iraq, which actually involved eliminating the Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. With too much power, vanity and arrogance Soleimani ordered his Shia followers from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad and, before that, some American bases in Iraq in order to create chaos and marginalise the peaceful uprising calling for Iran to leave Iraq. This put Tehran in a major predicament, especially as Iran itself was experiencing mass protests after the rise in the price of fuel which targeted the Supreme Leader himself.

READ: Hezbollah’s Nasrallah explains the meaning of ‘fair punishment’ 

However, Soleimani’s game accelerated the inevitability of his end. The US had to regain its prestige in the eyes of the world. When intelligence reports suggested that he was planning to attack other US targets in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani’s time had come.

His assassination signals a shift in US policy towards Iran, with the aim of trimming its claws in Iraq and, perhaps, the Arab capitals it controls. Some American analysts have described Soleimani’s killing as more important than the assassinations of Osama Bin Laden and Daesh’s Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Others warn of the threat posed by this escalation to US interests in Iraq and the region as a whole.

The US operation that targeted Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the PMF, and others was certainly significant, not least because it happened in Iraq, where Iran has influence and control over all aspects of the state. Interestingly, it did not take place in Syria, which Soleimani had left on a Syrian Airlines flight with the tacit approval of the US coalition. The message was clear: the rules of engagement have changed.

Although unprecedented in terms of the escalation with Iran, there was a specific context and a specific aim. Neither the US nor Iran want a full-scale war with each other, despite the rhetoric for the past 30 years.

Iran vowed to seek revenge and, indeed, Iranian missiles duly hit bases in Iraq early on Wednesday morning where US troops are stationed. Officials from the Pentagon and the Iraqi government have denied that there were any casualties in the Iranian strikes. According to Iranian media, though, there were between 30 and 80 American fatalities.

Some suspect that the time and place were chosen careful to allow Iran to demonstrate what it could do, and for the US to feel that it was a “proportionate” response. Leaks also suggested that Washington had been sending messages to Tehran via the Swiss to keep any response precisely that. In short, it was a face-saving response for both sides, which is what I predicted in the immediate aftermath of the general’s assassination.

People gather to protest the US air strike in Iraq that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, who headed Iran's Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds force in Sanaa, Yemen on 6 January 2020. [Mohammed Hamoud - Anadolu Agency]

People gather to protest the US air strike in Iraq that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, who headed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force in Sanaa, Yemen on 6 January 2020. [Mohammed Hamoud – Anadolu Agency]

Nevertheless, it remains the case that Iran can harm US interests in the region if it so wishes. It is noteworthy that President Hassan Rouhani said that the free people in the region would avenge Soleimani’s murder. Was he prompting Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Iraq’s PMF? Soleimani supported all three groups on behalf of the Iranian government. With his influence, the PMF militias are now part of the Iraqi Army.

Can Iran carry out its threats against the US? America has around 800 military bases around the world, with about 70,000 soldiers stationed in the Middle East and close by. There are 36 bases more or less surrounding Iran, home to 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan; 7,000 in Bahrain; 8,000 in Iraq after the arrival of 3,000 deployed since Soleimani’s assassination; 13,000 in Qatar; 3,000 in Saudi Arabia; 3,000 in Jordan; and 5,000 in the UAE. These figures do not include sailors and air power in US fleets around the region.

The Iranians could no doubt instigate a major incident which would damage US prestige, but are unlikely to dare to do so because they cannot guarantee the consequences. A direct war is not in Iran’s interests; relatively low-level proxy conflicts across the region are more its style, to export the war into the Arab countries. It remains a tragedy for our countries to be battlefields for others fighting wars in which we have no interest.

READ: Will Iran be able to match its revenge rhetoric with action following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani? 

Iranian policy is sophisticated, cunning and patient. Tehran will seek to exploit the assassination in order to achieve short-, medium- and long-term benefits. It has already said that the nuclear deal is now dead and buried as it will not fulfil its terms; Donald Trump withdrew the US from this two years ago in any case, so it was never going to last. However, this may well be a move to try to elicit popular support for the government, given that Germany and Britain — both signatories to the 2015 deal — have expressed their support for Soleimani’s killing.

I believe that we will now see international intervention and mediation to get Tehran and Washington back to the negotiations table to resolve outstanding matters, beginning with Iraq and Syria, followed by Yemen and a new nuclear deal. I am almost certain that preparations are already underway for these negotiations. Trump’s tweet hinted at this: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” as did his ambiguous statement that Soleimani was killed “to stop a war, not to start one”. The outcome of negotiations could well be that Iran will achieve its historical dream of dominating the region with US approval.

This is a political game that both the US and Iran are good at, but that is no consolation for the Iraqi people’s uprising which almost toppled Tehran’s men in Baghdad and ended their control of Iraq. Nor is it any consolation for the Arab people across the region still suffering under Iranian proxies. Their time will come, though; of that I am sure.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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