Early on Friday morning, 3 January, 2020, an American drone strike killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani as he travelled in convoy just outside Baghdad airport in Iraq.
The strike is one of potentially huge impact to the region. Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He was arguably the second most powerful man in Iran, subordinate only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Quds Force is the expeditionary arm of the IRGC, and as a result has been instrumental in pushing Iranian covert and asymmetric warfare interests throughout the Middle East. The unit is thought to have been key to seeing advanced weapons coming into the hands of both the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. These have been used against America’s principal allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Additionally, Soleimani was considered to be the architect for the Assad regime in Syria managing to retain its grasp on power. Under his leadership the Quds Force has become a major player in the Machiavellian cold war for regional dominance that is raging in the Middle East, and key to Iran’s policies.
So his death, particularly considering that he was ranked a national hero in Iran, is one of huge political and strategic consequence. Iran has declared that there will be three days of mourning and sworn vengeance upon the United States.
But in many ways, why is this situation a surprise to anyone?
Some commentators of the killing of Soleimani seem to think that this is a major miscalculation by the Trump administration. That’s possible, but one thing is certain – the Iranians have badly miscalculated Trump’s thinking.
Few seem to be pointing that out. Which is ridiculous, considering the situation Trump is in.
Currently facing impeachment, Trump is also coming into an election year. A number of voices, notably on social media, are calling this a Reichstag moment; Trump is engineering a war to deflect attention from his domestic concerns.
That’s a real possibility, there is no denying. But it is overlooks the fact that the Iranians have been more and more belligerent over the last decade.
Iran has been leading an increasingly brazen policy towards both the United States and its regional allies. Aside from the aforementioned arming of non-state actors, Iran has shot down an American drone (admittedly leading to a game of “he-said-she-said” on the location of the engagement), been implicated in the limpet mine attacks on shipping in the Gulf and used proxy forces to kill Americans in Iraq.
Additionally, Iran has been increasingly open about its control in Iraq, with Iranian-backed militias gunning down civilian protestors in the streets and even besieging the American Embassy.
You can only poke the bear so long before it wakes up and tears your head off.
It now remains to be seen what Iran does as reaction, and who gets to set the agenda on how any conflict will be fought, should it come to that.
The Iranian, if they are wise, will seek at all costs to avoid conventional conflict against the United States. Some talking heads praise the Iranian militaries capabilities – such talk is stupidity, there is NO more destructive and capable military today than that of the United States.
But only if you play it at its game.
Iran really only has the option of asymmetrical threats against American interests. Expect any attacks to be by proxy forces in Iraq, and probably against shipping in the Gulf and possibly further afield if Iran calls on its Houthi and Hezbollah proxies.
Of course, such actions would be headed up by the Quds Force.
Who’ve just been decapitated.
We could just have witnessed the asymmetric war equivalent of the attack on Port Arthur. Or Pearl Harbor, depending on the outcome.
If it comes to a shooting war, one hopes the American would be smart enough to avoid an actual invasion and settle for dismantling Iran’s military infrastructure piece by piece with air-and-missile strikes.
Of course if hostilities are on Trump’s mind, with a view to winning support for the upcoming election, it is a course that is beset by perils for the unwary. Tsar Nicolas II is reputed to have been counselled that a “short, victorious war” would unite the Russian people under his leadership.
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.