The crisis in the United States–Iran relations has recently witnessed rapid escalations with the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani last week and now Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq. Soleimani, who led and headed the foreign arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite military unit known as Iran’s Quds Force, was assassinated on the orders of President Donald Trump. The assassination took place through a drone strike targeted at Soleimani and others who were accompanying him near the cargo area of Baghdad International Airport while he was traveling in a car. As it is reported, he was coming into Iraq from Lebanon or Syria.
This drone attack did not take only the life of Soleimani; the IRGC said that 10 people were killed by the operation and five of them were its members. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi forces, were the most prominent of those killed. The PMF are an Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary unit or militia, and Al-Muhandis has long been considered Iran’s hand in Iraq. This Iraqi armed militia has very close ties with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and was recently designated a “terrorist organisation” by the United States.
Why US withdrawal from the “JCPOA” matters
In July 2015, Iran and the United Nations Security Council (composed of the US, UK, France, China and Russia) with Germany reached a nuclear deal, which was the core of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) Iran initiative. However, when Trump assumed office, he set about fulfilling an election campaign promise to withdraw from this deal. Even before he came into office, he believed that Iran’s nuclear agreement was bad and that it was too dangerous to allow a regime chanting “death to America” to gain or have nuclear weapons. Thus, his foreign policy has been marked by the escalation of tensions with Iran from the beginning. It is widely believed that Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Obama-era agreement was due to his desire to wipe out or water down President Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is possible that US withdrawal from the JCPOA - known as the Iran nuclear deal - is at the root of the escalating tensions between the two countries. After that, the region witnessed several attacks on American drones and other targets such as oil tankers in the Gulf and the Strait of Hurmuz. The United States accused the PMF of carrying out these attacks and designated it a “terrorist organisation.” However, the PMF is Iran’s arm in Iraq and one of several Iran-backed groups in the region.
Therefore, in response to these actions, the United States has imposed different sanctions on Tehran and tightened the severity of these sanctions over time. For example, Iran is struggling financially and economically from the trade sanctions that Trump has imposed on the country. As well as his sanctions on Tehran, which cover oil and gas imports and exports, Trump also imposed trade sanctions on European companies that trade with Tehran. The tensions between the two countries have continued and the US had increased pressure on Iran by recognising the Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a "foreign terrorist organisation." While all these pressures have been imposed on Tehran, Iraq has become gradually the battlefield between Tehran and Washington. The activities of Iraqi Shia groups backed by Iran have increased rapidly.
Since May 2019, the US–Iran situation has reached a more advanced and delicate stage and is expected to have a long-lasting effect on the geopolitics of the region. A US contractor was killed by a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base on 27 December last year and several have been wounded. Even though the US-led coalition did not determine responsibility for this attack, the US blamed Kataib Hezbollah, which is an Iran-backed militia. Here, Iraq is embroiled again in a proxy war. Moreover, following the US contractor’s killing, protests broke out at the compound of the US embassy in Baghdad, and many of the demonstrators and protesters, who are members of the PMF, attempted to vandalise the heavily-fortified embassy. The US Department of Defense then stated that Soleimani and Quds Forces were planning to attack American citizens, diplomats and military personnel in the region. It also accused Soleimani and the Quds Forces of being responsible for the killing of the US contractor and the embassy protests. These developments have culminated in the killing of Soleimani in Iraq but the question that remains is this: what is next?
What comes next?
Iran was always going to respond. But it is now facing a grave situation and all the choices available to it are complicated and tough. There are different scenarios that it could go through. If it chooses revenge, it would mean a direct confrontation with the United States which is a poor choice for Iran, at least at this stage, as the cost may be too high. A war or continuing attacks would threaten Iran’s survival and sovereignty, as well as its influence in the region. Therefore, Iran will mostly avoid any such confrontations, as regime survival is top priority.
Another scenario could be that Iran responds indirectly by attacking an American target without formally adopting the operation while everyone knows it was an Iranian response by proxy. This kind of reaction is well-known in international conflicts, but this choice may put Iran in a situation of being attacked again and again. This scenario would place Iran in a vicious circle of endless attacks from the US, and this will affect its political and economic stability negatively. It could use its allies and proxy militias in the region for this kind of operation, but that is still an uneasy option for it to adopt.
Another possible scenario is to give no response in the form of an attack but go to the negotiation table for third-party intermediation. However, this scenario has many repercussions for Iran; if it does not respond, it could look weak and expect similar attacks in the future. In addition, it has to consider that Soleimani’s assassination hit the core of the Iranian people’s conscience and dignity. This choice may give Iran the opportunity to forge political negotiations with the US, which in turn would give it a chance to, for example, demand for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq or make any similar demand.
Even though it is hard to determine which line Iran will tow in this volatile situation, the last one could be the most likely as it may have the least costs and most benefits for the country.
To sum up, as long as the situation on the ground is unstable, it is very difficult to foresee which scenario Iran will decide to act on, given each of them has its costs and benefits. However, it has to deal with the current situation keenly and deliberately. Otherwise, Iran’s survival, stability and sovereignty, as well as its influence in the region, will be threatened.
- Dr Mahjoob Zweiri is the Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.
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