As we take stock of General Qassem Soleimani’s death, contemplating both its significance in the coming weeks and what it signifies for the future, there are two points to be considered.
Firstly, why did it happen and was it justified? Secondly, what does it mean for geopolitical relations in the Middle East and around the globe?
The first question, to my mind, is the simpler of the two. President Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani may have caught the world by surprise, but it is not without context.
In 2015, the United States withdrew its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal as it became known, believing that its sunset clauses only guaranteed a delay to Iran’s nuclear ambitions while doing little to alter the Islamic Republic’s fundamentally adversarial attitude to both the West and Israel, which it has frequently vowed to destroy.
Since then, America has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure", seeking to shut down Iran’s access to international finance and force its leaders to return to the negotiating table. In retaliation, Tehran has stepped up its activities across the Middle East, most notably by propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well as rearming Hezbollah in Lebanon and stoking a brutal civil war in Yemen.
Desperation has also emboldened Iran to directly confront both the West and its great regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
When British marines seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar in July 2019, believing that its cargo would be sold to the Assad regime, Iran responded by attacking shipping in the Gulf and seizing a British flagged ship, holding its crew to ransom for two months. Tehran’s bullying tactics and repeated assurances that the vessel Grace I was not destined for Syria eventually resulted in the tanker’s release by Gibraltar in August. One month later, Assad had his oil and Tehran its money.
Both September’s attack on Saudi oil fields and the Iranian-directed siege of the US embassy in Baghdad over the past few days relied on the same basic calculation: although its rivals had more money and better military hardware, they were ultimately unwilling to provoke an all-out war with Iran. As such, the Islamic Republic could continue to foment discord so long as it did so through proxies or with sufficient plausible deniability.
On 31 December 2019, when President Trump warned of serious reprisals if US facilities came under attack by Iran or its proxies, the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei taunted Trump with a tweet suggesting that the US “can’t do anything” in response to Iranian aggression. Khamenei was wrong. General Soleimani is dead and now Iran must bury the remains of its most vaunted commander.
Was this justified? Yes. A million times yes.
In his decades-long career at the helm of the Quds Force, the unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards responsible for directing Iran’s unconventional conflicts abroad (think Syria, Yemen and Iraq over the last two decades), General Soleimani was responsible for countless deaths, including those of Iraqis, Americans, Syrians and Iranians to name a few.
Soleimani posed a direct and ongoing threat to civilians across the Middle East, as well as to American personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. What is more, he perpetrated his crimes in the manner of a common terrorist; that he has died like one is only fitting.
What of this moment’s significance?
Without doubt, the death of General Soleimani is likely to prove much more significant than that of either Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In both of the latter cases, these were largely symbolic moments in the war on terror. Both Al Qaeda and Islamic State had long since been set up to operate in a decentralised and cellular fashion, a function of the fact that their leaders were in hiding and unable to manage their day-to-day operations, as well as to ward off infiltration.
The case of Soleimani is altogether different. His death is much more than symbolic and will send ripples across the Middle East and beyond, altering the prevailing dynamics to which we have become accustomed.
Firstly, to state the obvious, the Islamic Republic is a very different entity compared to either Al Qaeda and Isis. It has been no less damaging to peace in the Middle East, but as a functioning nation state, the death of its second most powerful leader is much more than symbolic. Iran can and will retaliate. In all likelihood, it will continue to do so through proxies, constantly testing the limits of what it can get away with. But this will be with a new ferocity.
Secondly, Soleimani’s death will shore up domestic support for the Islamic Republic, which in recent months had been wavering. The protests which raged throughout Iran before Christmas will be brushed aside with calls for national unity in the face of foreign aggression.
Thirdly, the European Union, as well as countries such as France and Britain, all of whom have until now sought to keep the JCPOA on life support, will be forced to choose sides. For countries like Britain, who have faced Iranian aggression first-hand, this may no longer seem such a difficult choice.
Finally, President Trump will also have to decide how far he is willing to go in his face-off with the Supreme Leader Khamenei. Iran has been calling America’s bluff for many years. With this blow, the US has stated its willingness to act. Who blinks next is anyone’s guess.
- Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata is a former Foreign Minister of Italy, former Italian Ambassador to the United States, former Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations and part of the Advisory Board of UANI.
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