As the Killing of Top Iran General marks a Tipping Point in the Crisis in the Middle East, Who has the Most to Fear
Col Rajeev Agarwal

In the early hours of 03 January, Iran's most powerful military commander, General Qasem Soleimani was killed by an air strike at Baghdad airport in a precision strike carried out by the US. The attack, based on specific intelligence, was carried out by a pre-positioned drone operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of the US. General Soleimani was the head of Iran's elite Quds Force and was the brain behind most of Iran’s strategy and military operations in the region. Veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, he had grown through the ranks and was considered the second-most powerful man in Iran after the Supreme Leader.

US authorities justified the killing saying that Suleimani and the Quds forces were responsible for the recent attack on Americans including the killing of a US contractor in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on 27 December by Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia and the later storming of the US embassy in Baghdad on 31 December. The Pentagon statement said, "at the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani." Killing of the Iranian General, coming close on the heels of the strike by US forces on 29 December against Kataib Hezbollah facilities in northern Iraq and Syria that killed 25 Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) members (an Iran-aligned Iraqi Shia militia) has brought the region once again closer to the possibility of a military conflict than ever before in the past decades. Also, it could not have come at a worse time for the region, already grappling with political chaos and armed conflicts across several nations; Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, to name a few.

Who was General Qasem Soleimani

Apart from being the commander of the Quds force and the second most powerful man in Iran, General Soleimani was a widely respected person in Iran was hailed as a heroic national figure. He was also often called as the ‘Protector of Iran’ and was awarded the highest civilian honour last year in Iran. Stories of his valour in various wars and conflicts evoked a very strong nationalist fervor among the common people in Iran. Although he was rarely heard in public, his standing amongst the senior most in hierarchy in Iran was never in doubt. It is in this context specially that Iran would be compelled to avenge his killing appropriately.

Justification and the Reactions

The US has exercised its option to act. In taking out a high-profile commander like General Soleimani, it has not only raised the ante but risks heavy and maybe asymmetric retaliation from Iran. American citizens have already been told to leave Iraq and all US stations and assets around the globe have been put on highest alert. The drone strike has, however, evoked strong and quite contrasting responses within the US and beyond. The US government officials claim that the US had to exercise this option in the face of an imminent threat and after months of restraint. Remember, the US had accused Iran of shooting down its drone in June 2019 and had almost launched an air strike before pulling out at the last moment. Also, there were frequent attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, missile attacks on Saudi airports & oil pipelines in May-June 2019 and the infamous attack on Saudi Aramco oil fields in September 2019, which were all blamed on Iran. The US and its allies however decided against taking any military action and only tightened the noose of economic sanctions on Iran and declared Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Al Quds Force as foreign terrorist organizations.

Others in the country however, don’t quite endorse the official line. Criticizing the action, the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “we cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions," whereas former Vice President Joe Biden said that President Trump "just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox" adding that the president owes the American people an explanation both here at home and abroad.

With the US having fired its gun, it can only wait and watch out for the Iranian response. The Iranians now have to decide the type, scale, timing and location of attack or attacks. There has been immediate and severe condemnation of the killing in Iran. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "severe revenge awaits the criminals" behind the attack. He also announced three days of national mourning. President Hasan Rouhani said that "Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America," while Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif called the attack an extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. Coming on a Friday, the day of weekly prayers, the reaction among the people on street in Iran was that of disbelief, anger and revenge.

In neighboring Iraq too, despite months of antigovernment protests, there was condemnation of the killing and a sense that Iraq should no longer be treated as proxy battleground between the US and Iran. The killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Commander of PMF, an Iraqi government entity, in the same attack, drew sharp reaction from the Iraqi caretaker PM. He called the killing a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and called for a special session of the parliament.

Elsewhere, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that "Soleimani devotedly served the cause of protecting Iran’s national interests, and that the US airstrike will lead to growing tensions in the Middle East”. The Chinese government asked the US to exercise restraint and called for calm in the Middle East. The global oil prices soared by more than four percent within hours of the attack.

What Now

The ball is clearly in Iran’s court. While Iran may not be able to match the US in scale and technological prowess of its military power, it certainly has the advantage of being in the region, well anchored and spread out. It’s direct as well as proxy influence and ability to strike across the region with relative impunity is well acknowledged and demonstrated in the past, especially, as alleged, in 2019. Any action by Iran to block or hamper oil tankers and trade across the Persian Gulf or attacks on vulnerable locations or assets akin to Aramco oil fields attack in September last year could have disproportionate effect on the region’s and global trade. Also, this time, the hits are likely to be more punitive and of a greater intensity & depth, commensurate to the stature of General Soleimani in Iran. With re-commencement of its nuclear program and re-activation of its Arak Heavy Water plant few weeks back, the bogey of nuclear weapons in the region could also make a strong comeback. Remember, the present conflict between Iran and the US started only because President Trump decided to pull out of Iran nuclear deal last year and re-impose punitive economic sanctions on Iran.

The anger and quest for revenge is on Iranian side. The advantage of choosing the method, time and location of attack is on Iranian side. Iran also knows that the US or the region cannot afford a full-scale military conflict. Therefore, once Iran executes its plan, the ball will be back in the US court on how to reply without escalating it into a full-scale war and without looking stupid in front of people back home. Remember, it is also an election year in the US as also Israel (its key ally in the region). Although Iranians must be full of pain, anger and anguish at the killing of their popular general, they know that the time is on their side. Also, the grip of the Iranian leadership which was threatening to slip in view of sliding economy and recent domestic protests, could not have asked for a better rallying point and nationalist fervor than this, albeit at a very high cost.

What about India

At a time when it is grappling with a downturn in the economy and domestic protests over some of the recent decisions taken by the government, the last thing that India could have wanted was instability and threat of a military conflict in the Persian Gulf region. The impact of rising oil prices could be greatly damaging to a country which depends on imports of over 50 percent of crude oil and 70 percent of LNG from the region. It is already being felt with the increase in price of crude oil over the weekend. The worries don’t end here. What about over nine million Indian expatriates residing and working in the Gulf region and supporting their families sending back home some of the largest remittances in the world (US $ 48 billion in 2018)?1 People have not yet forgotten the mass evacuation operations from Libya in March 2011 when India evacuated more than 3,600 people at the outbreak of ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Operation Raahat’ conducted in Yemen in 2015 when India evacuated over 6,700 people from the war torn country2. But could be vastly different in size and scope if the conflict spreads across both sides of the Persian Gulf to Saudi Arabia or UAE where itself more than 5 million Indians live and work. An evacuation on this scale has never been attempted and can be anybody’s worst nightmare. Remember, while Saudi Arabia is a declared rival of Iran, UAE too doesn’t count amongst Iran’s friend and both countries have large and lucrative American targets for a prospective Iranian revenge. What about India’s trade? Just UAE and Saudi Arabia total up-to more than US$ 100 billion3 in bilateral trade with India. Any instability or war could have disruptive effect on it too. Also, India has invested heavily in the region politically, building trust and inviting lucrative investments to build the ‘India Story’. There is also the question of Chabahar Port in Iran, which is India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Any armed conflict involving Iran could be damaging to its use too. India therefore has lots at stake in this developing situation and eagerly watches the developments with concern and caution.

Looking Ahead

While Iran weighs its options to retaliate, others cautiously weigh in all possible scenarios. Iraq, unfortunately finds itself caught in the cross-fire, waiting with bated breath at how the future unfolds. The threat of revival of Islamic State in Iraq and elsewhere too looms large now that their chief tormentor is dead. The US government is working hard to sell the story that Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, as a reason for this killing. People have however, not forgotten the bogie of the threat of WMD in Iraq and the ‘Operation Desert Storm’ of 2003. The consequences of it reverberate across the region even today. There is also the question of legality of this unilateral action by the US against a top Iranian official in a third country (Iraq). These are issues, however, more for discussions and debates now. As American citizens return home from Iraq and the region amidst fear and panic, the common question on the street is ‘what was the need, why now?’ While there are no concrete answers forthcoming, the US government and the American people can only wait to see what Iran opts to do while it’s military and intelligence keeps tight vigil. For a region besieged with frequent conflicts, this decade could not have started on a more dangerous note.

References
  1. Compiled from the report on Bilateral Remittances Matrix of 2018 released by World Bank, available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/labormarkets/brief/migration-and-remittances
  2. Rescue Operations by India, by Press Information Bureau of India, available at https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=133841
  3. Compiled from data from Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, available at https://commerce-app.gov.in/eidb/default.asp

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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