The recent assassination of Qaseem Soleimani – the head of Iran’s Quds force or the foreign arm of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (IRGC) – has worsened the delicate political balance in an already deteriorating West Asia. The assassination was carried by the United States on Iraqi soil in a drone-targeted attack that also killed an Iraqi commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), who worked with Soleimani in an anti-terror Shiite military front, with the PMF being regarded as an extension of Iraqi Army. This was not just an attack on Iran, but on Iraq as well, occurring on Iraqi soil on an international airport and killing an Iraqi commander. It is no wonder that Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding vote, boycotted by Sunni parties, to expel US troops in Iraq.
While, Iran – in a retaliatory attack – bombed two US military bases in Iraq and claimed that it had killed 80 ‘American terrorists’, the US did not strike back and maintained that there were no casualties although the material damages were significant and there were some injuries.
There is a climbdown in hostilities from both sides for now, as Iran – a master in proxy regional warfare – would never have preferred to engage in direct warfare with the US , but the killing of Soleimani may have other far-reaching implications in the regional situation.
As It Happened
The killing of Soleimani on January 3, 2020 occurred as a precipitation of series of immediate events starting December 27, 2019. On December 27, a US military base in Iraq was attacked, killing an American contractor and injuring other Americans. In retaliation, on December 29, the US attacked five bases and the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, which is a key Iraqi Shia militant outfit, owing its loyalty to Iran. The strikes killed 25 Iraqis and wounded many more. These were perceived as a big offensive against Iraq and Iran, and in response, pro-Iran Iraqi protestors stormed the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, causing material damage and setting its perimeter on fire.
While there were no deaths, the storming of the US embassy was bound to be perceived as a major transgression by the US, bringing back memories of how the US embassy was attacked by the Islamist protestors in Iran in 1981, after which US and Iran have never had diplomatic relations. It also brought back memories of the 2012 storming of US embassy in Benghazi leading to the killing of the American ambassador to Libya. The US also believed that the heavily fortified US embassy in Iraq could not have been breached by the protestors without some facilitation or laxity on the part of Iraqi government.
The siege of the embassy was the final straw for the US and provoked it to attack Soleimani, on January 3, as he landed at Baghdad’s airport in a precision targeted attack. The reason US gave after killing Soleimani was that it was an act of preemptive ‘self-defense’, as they had information that Soleimani was planning to attack US interests. While preemptive action has been authorized under armed conflict by the UN Charter, in reality, it all depends on the perceptions of the countries. More relevant than international law was the US Congress’ invocation of the War Powers Act of 1973 by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives against the Trump administration, under which the Congress notifies whether US can go to war, or, if the US has already engaged in armed conflict, the government should apprise the Congress of it within 48 hours. US actions in Afghanistan after 9/11 and invasion of Iraq in 2003 were all authorized by the Congress.
However, this case – which reflects more of a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans – neither falls under such exceptional circumstances of ‘war’ and neither can it be termed as sustained armed conflict, since US and Iran have continued to engage in indirect low-level proxy warfare rather than in a direct armed confrontation. The killing of Soleimani was a one-off, but here also US acted shrewdly, as by killing Soleimani on Iraqi soil they did not directly attack Iran. Moreover, while Iran threatened to retaliate, the actual retaliation in form of missile strikes on US bases in Iraq was much less impressive and quite disproportionate to US’s daring act.
This means that Iran’s intentions are to continue with proxy warfare against the US, by attacking US interests in the Middle East or its allies (like Israel and Saudi Arabia), rather than engage in a direct confrontation for which it has inferior military capabilities. While Iran would prefer to – and is also expected to – engage in a much more heightened and intensified proxy warfare, this may not be likely for some time, as Soleimani was the key person who coordinated communications and unity among Iranian proxies spread across countries like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and even Afghanistan. Soleimani’s death will deal a blow to these coordination networks.
Soleimani and the Iranian Power
The US-Iran confrontation leading to the assassination of Soleimani has played out like a chess game. Ever since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, there has been no respite in US-Iran hostilities, yet there has been no direct confrontation either. There have been continuous low-level skirmishes and indirect confrontations. Last year, US and Iran declared each other’s militaries as ‘terrorist organizations’, while Iran persistently blocked shipping routes from the Strait of Hormuz, taking hostages from foreign shipping vessels, and, bombing Saudi oil infrastructure. It also continued to systematically violate the 2015 nuclear accord – after giving advance warnings each time – due to the failure of Europe to circumvent the US sanctions.
Iran received support from Russia, China, Iraq and Syria, while keeping strategic channels with other countries like Turkey and India also open. Europe and UK were looked upon with suspicion due to their subservience to the US. Even with its ‘allies’, Iran has had to play a tricky game. Iran’s policy has been of ‘forward defence’, masterminded by the IRGC since the 1980s, much before Soleimani started heading the Quds force in 1998 and perfected this strategy to a tee. The four key regional proxies created and masterminded by Iran include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad movement (PIJ) in Palestine, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen (Goel, 2020).
The Iranian strategy involved making up for Iran’s deficiencies in direct confrontational offensive warfare by spreading Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and parts of Asia. The central idea behind this strategy was to indirectly export the Iranian Islamic Revolution (of 1979) by consolidating Shia Muslims in various countries, and, consequently, raising and training Shiite armed militias and political factions through which Iran can influence politics and security in other countries. The Shia community, forming only 10-15% of the global Muslim community, sees itself as a persecuted minority within the Muslim world, with Iranian power as the only epicenter and chief support of Shia Muslims (Shah 2020).
Prominent examples include how Iranian strategy to export Shia Islamic Revolution managed to establish a strong presence in Lebanon’s politics through the Hezbollah since 1982 – which performs the dual role of being a Shiite militia as well as contesting elections and being a part of government in the Lebanese system where governmental power is equally shared between Sunni, Shia and Christians. The powerful Hezbollah has served Iran well, by weakening the US and Israel.
Similar to Lebanon, Iran has established a foothold in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, Iran left no stone unturned in exploiting US’s failure to build ‘democracy’ in Iraq after 2003, with the vacuum left by US’s ineptitude providing a wide latitude to Iran to consolidate the Shia majority and start influencing the political system through its own people. Iran perfected this to such an extent that now it is well-known that no government in Iraq can be elected without Iran’s blessings, despite its political tussles with US and western proxies.
In Syria too, Iran used Hezbollah and IRGC and a combination of various Shiite militia factions to defeat the ISIS. At a time when, Assad’s regime was continuously losing territories to both ISIS and to the West-funded anti-regime ‘rebels’, Soleimani turned the balance in Iran’s favour by sending Shia militias to support the Syrian Army. While the broad support came from Russia, the ground support was entirely Iranian. For Iran, Syria’s regime had to survive as Syria served as a crucial link between Iran and the Hezbollah based in Lebanon.
Iran’s monumental success in Syria and Iraq and the re-establishment of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Lebanon to Iran, was entirely Soleimani’s game, defeating the Syrian rebels who controlled the Syria-Lebanon border and ISIS which controlled the Syria-Iraq border, posing a vital threat to Iran (Goel 2020).
It also temporarily struck a deal with the US to defeat the common enemy in the form of Islamic State, although the lines were always blurred. While Iran proved its capability in proxy wars by defeating the ISIS, it also showed that it was a master in the playing of the regional political game.
It struck deals with Russia and Turkey to help defeat the ISIS and, later, to help oust the US-Saudi-UAE alliance also that was also supporting the rebels against the Assad regime. Thus, Iran successfully ensured that Assad remained. As things stand, Iran and Russia – despite being allies – continuously jostle for influence in Syria. Iran has left no stone unturned in building economic infrastructure and controlling key cities like Damascus, while Russia is also competing to do the same, often subtly ejecting military factions close to Iran from the cities where Russians have influence.
Iran has perfected this strategy of Shia mobilization as far as India, since the aim of Iranian regime was to support the Shia everywhere. In India, Iranian clerics frequent Kashmir and preach to Shia Muslims. Just like the Sunni Muslims’ allegiance to Saudi Arabia, for Shia Muslims, Iran comes first. On a recent visit to India (a few days after Soleimani’s assassination), the Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement that Shia Muslims protested in 430 Indian cities against the US, was meant to indicate Iran’s religious reach. India is home to the world’s second largest Shia Muslim population, after Iran.
The Iranian strategy has been so successful up till now that even US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) have not been able to defeat it. In the Yemen civil war, Iranian-funded Houthi rebels won for years the ethnic warfare against the government that was supported by Saudi Arabia and its regional and Western allies.
The mastermind who perfected this strategy, often through personal involvement, was Qassem Soleimani, who has been very close to Iran’s Supreme Leader. He joined, at the age of 22, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution toppled US-run Shah’s regime in Iran. He symbolized the Shia fightback – in the form of Islamic Revolution – against the radical Sunni-Wahabi Islam across the region. Indeed, the raison d’etre for the transformation in Iran in 1979, in the form of the Islamic Revolution, should be seen as a Shia consolidation against Sunni terrorism – a problem that India could also relate to, having seen the results of Sunni radicalization in Kashmir and the rest of India, where Sunni Muslims live segregated lives but consolidate with a vengeance whenever needed, in form of riots and terror attacks. Shias, on the other hand, have been more or less natural allies of the Indian state.
From being given the responsibility of supplying water to soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war, he became the head of Quds Force of IRGC in 1998. In a way, then, the trajectory of Iran since 1979 has been the trajectory of Soleimani’s own life during the same period. Even though the systems Soleimani has built up will remain in place and the material and political setback may be temporary, yet, from a psychological point of view, Soleimani’s death would be an unparalleled blow to Iran and cannot be emphasized enough. It is as good as US achieving the first step towards the desired regime change in Iran. Soleimani had become the personification of the Iranian regime and America’s personal enemy. Political analysis will not be able to capture the psychological blow dealt to Iran by Soleimani’s assassination.
He had begun to come into public eye, becoming an important and popular public personality, who used to respond directly to Trump’s barbs. For the US, killing Soleimani was a major achievement, as it has weakened Iran considerably, politically in the short-run and psychologically in a near-permanent way. A United States Military Academy (USMA) dossier of 2018 expounded on the importance of Soleimani thus: “… To say that today’s Iran cannot be fully understood without first understanding Qassem Soleimani would be a considerable understatement. More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence — which Iran terms its ‘Axis of Resistance’ — extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”
Soleimani was the architect for the development of Iran’s capabilities for asymmetric and covert warfare and the training of Shia militant proxies in numerous countries where Iran developed an unparalleled political and military influence. He cooperated with US in a temporary manner on two occasions viz. post-9/11 in Afghanistan as he wanted the Taliban defeated, and, more recently, to defeat the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, both these cooperative ventures were short-lived and despite them, Soleimani has been the chief strategist behind the killing of Americans throughout the Middle East, especially in Iraq where Soleimani began to direct attacks against Americans since 2003 and resulted in a complete failure of America’s policy in Iraq.
Symbolically, one man alone – manifesting the power of Iranian Islamic regime – has been responsible for bringing the world’s superpower – the US and its powerful allies from the West like France and UK and from Middle-east – to its knees in the Middle East, ensuring that history will term the entire US policy in the region a failure and generations of Middle-eastern studies will be a scathing critique of US’s policy of unsuccessful regime changes throughout the region. Among others, the US policy has failed in Iraq, got badly exposed in Libya and took the life of its own ambassador, failed in Syria without accomplishing regime change, failed the Kurds in the most mercantile manner, failed in Yemen and could not take credit for defeat of ISIS. All this under Soleimani’s leadership. It is no wonder that the importance of Soleimani’s assassination for the US cannot be emphasized enough.