In the early hours of the morning, Iraqi State television reported that the leader of Iran’s Qud’s Force, Qasem Soleimani had – along with six other people including Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – been killed in a US strike near Baghdad airport.
Make no mistake: this is the most significant military assassination in the 21st century Middle East. More significant even than the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Bin Laden was the more famous man but was, by the time of his death, a lone figure stuck impotently in a compound in Pakistan. As the orchestrator of 9/11, his death was necessary closure for Washington, but it was a largely symbolic act. Soleimani, too, was a symbol: of Iran’s power across the Middle East. The Iranians allowed his photo to circulate on Twitter; they encouraged fawning or fearful coverage of him to spread across social and traditional media. But he was also the engine of Iran’s active operational power. He was at the heart of the country’s violence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. In terms of the damage to active terror networks, Soleimani’s assassination is unparalleled in the contemporary moment.
Two questions necessarily arise after such an astounding act. Why now? And what next?
The first question appears, superficially at least, easier to answer. The strike comes just over 48 hours after members of the Iranian-backed militia group Kataib Hezbollah attacked the US embassy in Baghdad following the funerals of group members killed by a US air strike just days before that.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 3, 2020
Dear Iranian Nation!Years of sincere, brave efforts fighting against the devils& villainous in the world & yrs of wishing for martyrdom on the path of God finally took the dear Commander of Islam, Soleimani, to this lofty status. His blood was shed by the most barbaric of men./1
The embassy attack enraged the United States; president Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten Iran directly. Iran "will pay a very big price" for any damage or loss of life. "This is not a warning, it is a threat," he tweeted. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hit back immediately, quote tweeting Trump with a response that, swollen with hubris, included the line: “you can’t do anything.”
This was perhaps a provocation too far. In the last year, Iran has shot down a US drone, attacked a major Saudi oil facility and struck a US base – and all with no response. No surprise that perhaps some in Tehran began to feel a sense of invincibility. And of course Soleimani has been de facto fighting the US across the Middle East for over twenty years, not least throughout the painful years in Iraq. He was awash with American blood. And in attacking Trump on Twitter, Khamenei hit the US president in the arena he cares about more than any other.
Just hours after news of the assassination was announced, the US Department of Defence released a statement saying their forces had killed Soleimani “at the direction of the President.” He was, it declared, “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It went on to describe him and the Quds Force as being “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Trump, meanwhile, tweeted a single image of an American flag. For once, he said nothing, but the message was unambiguous – and potent.
If the motive behind the act seems clear what comes next is less so. The strike has taken out the Islamic Republic’s most important Middle East operative, so the damage is tangible at the military and strategic level. But it also poses a problem politically.
Iran in the 21st century has seen a return to its early policy of regional expansion. It is enmeshed in the political (and indeed social) fabric of Iraq, and of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah, in Yemen through the Houthi militia group, and of course in Syria where, along with Russia, it is the reason why Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
And they will all be watching along with, most importantly, the Saudis, Iran’s main foe in the region. Soleimani was the literal face of Iran in the wider Middle East; can the world’s primary Shia power really do nothing while the Sunni Arab world looks on, and retain a credible posture of deterrence?
The answer is no. And with such a sophisticated network of proxies throughout the region it is likely that Tehran will use them to retaliate, as it always does. Asymmetric warfare is how Iran fights. Especially since it knows it cannot take the United States on in a conventional battle. In the past it has struck targets as far afield as Germany and even Argentina. Its reach is long.
Set against this will be the very real cost of escalation against a US that has just shown it is in a belligerent mood. Tehran, meanwhile, is also facing huge internal dissent as sanctions continue to strafe an Iranian economy already suffering from a longer term fall in oil prices. The people are revolting and the regime is killing them. It’s a febrile time, and a dangerous one. It’s also an election year for Donald Trump. He may well embrace the chance to get tough with the “Mad Mullahs.”
Talk is now of possible war. This seems overblown. Neither Iran nor the US wants a war that it can neither afford nor properly win. But action, one way or another, will come and then we are all subject to the law of unintended consequences.
A new decade has dawned in the Middle East, and it looks like it might be even more turbulent than the last.