Main Image Credit Courtesy of Christian Clausen.
A US-ordered assassination of a key Iranian lynchpin could overturn many Middle East calculations.
The killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the pre-eminent leader of the Iranian-aligned faction within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), is a critical turning point in the ongoing confrontation between the US and Iran. It also marks a change in how the international system operates.
For months, Iran has been conducting attacks across the Middle East in an attempt to force negotiations to end crippling economic sanctions imposed by the US. Iran could ramp up the pressure on the US because it calculated that the US feared a major military escalation more, given the scale of damage Iran could inflict on US interests in the region. Underpinning Iran’s threat of major escalation was its network of proxy actors, and the conductor of Iran’s proxy orchestra was Qassem Soleimani.
The immediate significance of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination is that it breaks the managed escalation cycle. The US made clear that the death of its personnel would be met with force, but by targeting senior Iranians the US went beyond what Iran had factored in as the cost of business. Now, Iran must carefully reassess its assumptions as to how the US will respond to its attacks. For Iran’s proxies, it is now clear that they are considered viable targets, and their commanders must ask whether close ties to Iran carry more risks than rewards. For some proxies like Hizbullah and Kata’ib Hizbullah, their attachment to Iran is fixed. But for other groups the future is less certain.
The domestic implications in Iraq are complex. Iraqis will undoubtedly resent yet another violation of their sovereignty. Condemnation will come from many quarters, including the Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr. But that anger is as much directed at Iran as the US. Qassem Soleimani was hated and feared by many Iraqis, playing a critical role in the murder of protesters over the preceding months. Similarly, while Iraqis remain quite supportive of the PMF movement, Kata'ib Hizbullah, the Iraqi Shia paramilitary group, is widely reviled both for its violence, and because it is essentially a foreign force. It is very likely that Kata’ib Hizbullah will seek to strike back to show it has not been defeated. However, other groups like Asa'ib Ahl al Haq, led by Qais al Khazali, face a dilemma. They could support Kata’ib Hizbullah and thereby secure their support from Iran, or they may go quiet to avoid becoming the next target.
In short, assumptions have been challenged across the region. Tactically, there is a critical opportunity for the US to clearly communicate the rationale for the strike, and in doing so to impose terms on Iran’s proxies. If the US can indicate the terms by which coexistence is possible, then many may begin to play by the US’s rules. On the other hand, if militia commanders cannot understand what will make them a target or conclude that they are all unavoidably potential targets, they will be forced to become more dependent on Iran. The US has created an opportunity to force a new course, but it will require subtlety to achieve it, and clarity in Washington as to the desired end goal. That clarity has been sorely lacking in US operations to date.
The killing is perhaps least significant at the operational level. Iran’s proxy network was founded upon close personal relationships, and Qassem Soleimani managed them. Under him, however, there were a large number of competent liaison officers and deputies. His death will no doubt disrupt Quds Force operations, just as the Israeli assassination of Hizbullah’s operations chief, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in 2008, did serious damage to the organisation’s capabilities. But Hizbullah ultimately rebuilt its capabilities. The damage is not permanent, and killing Soleimani is not a victory in itself.
The killing also does not bring us any closer to a settlement with Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme. Ultimately, Tehran must demonstrate that it is not cowed, and we can expect a violent response. In Iran, the Foreign Ministry will be sidelined, and retaliation will be in the hands of the IRGC – the same organisation that conducted a cruise missile strike on Saudi Arabia in September. Parallel to any retaliatory violence, the US and Iran will seek to define events respectively as either a just revenge for US aggression, or as terrorism conducted on the soil of Iran’s neighbours.
Strategically, the consequences go much further than Iran. Western officials have, for some years, been emphasising how the international system is returning to an era of great power competition in which violent exchanges below the threshold of all-out war are the norm. However, a distinction has generally been made between those seeking to disrupt the international system and those hoping to preserve it. That the US has now conducted a declared assassination of a foreign military officer means that it has essentially accepted these methods as the rules of exchange. In the future, therefore, we should not be surprised when Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others continue to play by them.
This poses a strategic question for the UK, which has for some time been repeating ad nauseam its commitment to the Rules Based International System. Yet, after this state-ordered assassination, exactly what rules are left? On the cusp of a Strategic Defence and Security Review, Whitehall will have to confront this question.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare