Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds force, and possibly the most powerful man in Iraq, was killed by the United States military on January 3rd, in Baghdad. The American strike also killed the leader of the Iran-backed PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The shockwaves of this event will be immense.
Suleimani’s killing is far bigger than the killing of Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Suleimani’s killing is also far more surprising and sudden than the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003. These two factors, taken together, are a recipe for complete chaos in the Middle East.
The events leading up to (but not including) Jan. 3 can easily be traced on a “ladder of escalation”. Iran and the United States have been at odds since the revolution of 1979, which marked the overthrow of the US and British backed Shah of Iran, who himself was placed into power when the US and Britain overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. A brief detente occurred during the latter years of the Obama administration, following the signing of the JCPOA and minimal cooperation against ISIS. When Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, tensions rapidly soured, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claiming that Trump was “afflicted by mental retardation”. Last week, an Iranian-backed militia, the Imam Ali Brigade, attacked an American base at Kirkuk, killing an American contractor and wounding several soldiers. In response, the United States bombed positions of Kata’ib Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed Shiite militia, killing 25 militia fighters. It is worth noting that both Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Imam Ali Brigade, along with around 40 other militia groups, are under the broader umbrella of the “Popular Mobilization Forces”, an Iranian-backed and Iraqi-government sponsored group consisting primarily of Iraqi Shiites. However, the PMF does have Sunni members – most likely recruited during the PMF’s long fight against ISIS, in which the PMF played a critical role in recapturing key Iraqi cities such as Tikrit. After the American bombing of Kata’ib Hezbollah, thousands of protestors along with members of the PMF stormed the American embassy at Baghdad – the center of American power and influence in Iraq. The embassy storming resulted in no casualties but struck a nerve in the United States – memories of Benghazi, along with distant memories of the Iranian hostage crisis, most certainly factored into American decision making.
The Baghdad airport bombing on January 3rd was, by any measure, a tactical success. Suleimani’s militants have killed hundreds of American troops since 2003 – without a doubt, Suleimani was an enemy of the United States. Killing both Suleimani and Muhandis essentially amounts to a decapitation strike against the Iranian presence in Iraq. On a strategic level, however, this bombing marks a reckless turn of events – one which flung the US and Iran twenty rungs up the ladder of escalation. If the United States had only killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the strike on Baghdad would be a successful decapitation strike that hampered the Iranian presence in Iraq. However, the killing of Qassem Suleimani is more than the killing of a general – it is the United States spitting on the Iranian national psyche. Nearly 70% of Iranians had a “very favorable” view of General Suleimani – who began his military service fighting Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Suleimani was the second most powerful man in Iran – only behind Ayatollah Khamenei himself – and the most powerful man in Iraq. Under Suleimani’s leadership, the Quds force propped up Bashar al Assad, dealt serious defeats to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and established an Iranian crescent, stretching from Tehran, to Baghdad, to Damascus, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Quds force also had a reach as far south as the Houthis in Yemen – who, earlier this year, managed to take out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production by attacking the oil stabilization plant at Abqaiq. Loved by his troops, Soleimani reportedly never wore a flak jacket and has been described as “fearless” by his troops. In Iran, the anger and grief have been swift – comedy films and concerts have been postponed, and the Iranian people are pouring into the street in mourning. One only needs to read Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement on the Jan. 3 airstrike to witness the Iranian anger at the United States.
From the Ayatollah:
“ Last night, the untainted souls of the martyrs embraced the pure soul of Qasem Soleimani. After years of sincere and courageous jihad against the devils and evil-doers of the world and after years of wishing for martyrdom in the path of God, alas, dear Soleimani attained this lofty station and his pure blood was spilled by the most vile of humans.”
It will be difficult to predict the Iranian response. The anger in Iran, along with the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the Trump administration, renders any assumption of rational decision making unwise. Iran has several options for retaliation – one of which being a lockdown of the Straits of Hormuz. Much speculation has been written about what happens if Hormuz is cut – but, fundamentally, the biggest initial victims will be in Asia. 85% of the oil flowing through Hormuz ends up in Asian markets – the largest being India, China, Japan, and South Korea. Still, the price of oil would likely soar worldwide, and spiking prices in Asian economic titans would result in global economic contraction. If Iran locks down the Strait of Hormuz, the United States would be forced to respond – America’s navy would have to force the Straits back open. Iran’s quiet diesel submarines pose the biggest threat to American naval forces, though Iranian fast-attack speedboats launching suicidal attacks against American ships is quite possible. These Iranian assets, coupled with the constrained nature of the Strait of Hormuz, could make an American naval incursion into a cut-off Persian gulf a bloody and costly endeavor. Ultimately, America would almost certainly be able to reopen the Straits of Hormuz – America’s navy is truly unmatched – but possibly at a high cost.
The next variable to consider is Iraq. America’s strike on the Baghdad airport marks a violation of Iraqi national sovereignty. Iraqi protests initially were protesting against Iran and sought an end to foreign domination of Iraq, but America’s violation of Iraqi sovereignty could drive Iraqi politicians further into the arms of Iran. While there have been reports of celebrations in Baghdad following the death of Soleimani, it should be known that Soleimani was most likely viewed as a savior against ISIS, and Sunni terror in general, by Iraq’s Shiite majority. It is therefore entirely possible that Soleimani is not only viewed as a martyr by Iran but by Iraqi Shiites as well. The result would be a rise in anti-American sentiment in Shiite-dominated regions of Iraq, along with further consolidation of Iranian power in Iraq. Potentially, Sunni and anti-Iranian militias, energized by the death of Soleimani, could take up arms against Tehran, the PMF, and the Quds, leading to another outbreak of civil war in a shattered country. These militias would never be able to displace Iranian influence without mass popular support, which seems highly unlikely.
Lastly, the United States must ask the question as to what it is actually trying to achieve in the Middle East. Is Trump simply trying to earn another “win” to bolster his re-election prospects, or distract from impeachment? The assassination of Qassam Suleimani will do nothing to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – in fact, this assassination will likely be the provocation which leads to Iran building nuclear weapons, sparking a potentially catastrophic nuclear arms race across the Middle East. The assassination will likely lead to intensified conflict between the United States and Iran – if not in a direct war, then in Iraqi cities between proxy groups – another one of those “forever wars” which Trump claims to despise.
What I have written is mere educated speculation. I may be completely wrong – but, the fact is that the ramifications of this event will be wildly unpredictable in nature and in destruction. The most important aspect of American foreign policy should be to promote regional stability – ultimately, it is stability which leads to prosperity and development. In unstable areas – such as Iraq after Saddam Hussein or even the Weimar Republic after Versailles – only forces of destruction and chaos, such as ISIS or the Nazis, arise. Attempts at regime change to promote “freedom” never succeed – and neither will a direct provocation of a 5,000-year-old civilizational power. The assassination of General Suleimani serves no other purpose to create instability – and thus, it directly contradicts the national interest of the United States.