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Soleimani's Killing: War Clouds Gather

For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander

Wednesday January 8, 2020 7:07 PM, Asad Mirza, ummid.com

US Iran Possible War

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

The killing of Gen Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps/ Quds Force is one of the biggest developments in the Middle East for decades - it far outdo the deaths of Bin Laden or Baghdadi in terms of strategic significance and implications.

In the past, Israel has repeatedly spurned the opportunity to kill Soleimani for the fear of consequences of taking out Iran’s most powerful operative in the world, someone whose power is surpassed only by Iran's Supreme Leader.

For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing U.S. sanctions. Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Daesh in Iraq and Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.

Gen. Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps besides The Quds Force, which is the branch of Iran's security forces responsible for operations abroad. For years, whether it be in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria or elsewhere, Soleimani has been a key player in expanding and extending Iran's influence through planning attacks or bolstering Tehran's local allies.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran would respond to the U.S. strike with “harsh retaliation,” while a former commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed “vigorous revenge.”

Russia’s foreign ministry and top politicians also criticised the U.S. strike, and said that it would increase the possibility of a regional conflict. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urged all parties to de-escalate, as further conflict is in none of our interests, he said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. had embarked on an “illegal power” move and called for dialogue with Iran.

On the other hand, at a press conference, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "We took action last night to stop a war, not to start a war." It’s still yet unclear what legal authority the United States relied on to carry out the attack.

American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. However, the Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up administrations assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

Several defence experts and politicians have questioned the president’s move including the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticised the lack of presidential consultation with Congress before launching the decapitation strike. In the latest developments, the Pentagon has refused permission to attack Iranian cultural and religious sites.

For India any escalation in the region could complicate its interests. India imports a significant amount of oil and gas from the region. It is developing Iranian port of Chahbhar eyeing easier trade route to central Asia. Any change in regional equations might impact its relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan besides its counter-terrorism concerns. It could also have an impact on its relations with US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Additionally, its oil bill is bound to increase.

Moreover, India stands nowhere in the emerging scenario when the Indian leadership was not informed by the US authorities of its attack on Soleimani. On its part, the Indian FM called the US NSA and Iranian FM on his own

Now what happens next is the big question.

Crude oil prices soared in the international markets after the killing and though most analysts expect Iran to shy away from a full-scale showdown with the U.S. military, they do expect to see more attacks by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran-backed militias inside Iraq. At the same time, Iran-backed terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah could undertake destabilisation operations across the region on their own.

But a bigger potential threat is the acceleration in Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. Iran has announced that it would no longer abide by any restrictions on its nuclear program. Those limits were the centerpiece of the 2015 nuclear agreement that had checked Tehran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the multiparty accord in 2018.

By saying it’s no longer bound by any nuclear restrictions, Tehran has come one big step closer to scrapping the deal. That nuclear acceleration, on top of any Iranian strikes on regional energy infrastructure, could threaten Israel and “could add to the risk of regional conflict, further pressuring crude to the upside,” ClearView Energy Partners, a think tank has opined in one of its reports.

However, Tehran doesn’t have any good options — and it knows that. For Tehran to save face, this dramatic U.S. operation demands some urgency to retaliate. The first Iranian response has come in the shape of 22 rocket attacks on Iraqi bases where American and coalition forces are based.

A full-blown war with the U.S. could jeopardise regime survival, and an escalation in the Persian Gulf will deprive Iran of what remains from its decimated oil income. Yet, in Iraq and in Lebanon, there might be chances of some sort of retaliation. In any case, the Pandora’s box has been opened.

Some regional experts said that the U.S. attack, while eliminating a powerful force in Iran’s regional ambitions, risks setting off a chain of unpredictable events.

[Asad Mirza is a Sr journalist based in New Delhi. In his career spanning more than 20 years, he was also associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. He writes on Muslims, educational and international affairs issues. Email: asad.mirza.nd@gmail.com.]

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