What Awaits Us in the ‘Post-Soleimani’ Middle East?

Unlike what the American officials have been claiming over the past several days, the “post-Soleimani Middle East” is going to be a much more dangerous place, not only for the US, but also for the countries and people of the region.

The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by a US strike in Baghdad, was shocking news not only to the Iranians but also to the politicians and observers all around the world.

The United States has tried to justify Soleimani’s assassination by claiming that he was in Iraq to organize attacks against the American interests in the Arab country. Later, it turned out that his visit to Baghdad was at the official invitation of Iraqi officials. Indeed, Iraqi Shiite commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was assassinated while accompanying Soleimani, had an official position as the deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). As a result, the American move was faced with a harshly negative reaction in both Iran and Iraq, with the Iranian officials declaring that Washington must await “hard revenge.” However, the Iranian officials are deliberately refusing from elaborating on how a retaliation would be. Such ambiguity would guarantee a persistent level of psychological pressure on the American forces in the Middle East, while providing Tehran with the necessary time to devise a concrete plan in this regard.

USA - Iran: Retaliation Diplomacy
Oleg Barabanov
In the next couple of days it is worth watching how the Americans behave in Iraq. There are two options: either they will sharply activate the evacuation of their bases, or vice versa - they will begin to strengthen them. In the latter case, the chances of an escalation of the conflict with a harsh American response will increase
Expert Opinions

Iran is expected to adopt a phased approach in dealing with the issue. In the first phase – which has already started – Iran will continue closely working with its allied factions in the Iraqi state to push for the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament’s vote on January 5 to expel the US forces from the country was the first step in this direction. After that, any remaining American forces would be considered “occupying troops,” making them legitimate targets for the pro-Iran armed groups in Iraq.
Gulf Cooperation Council: Reconsideration of the Zero-Sum Game Policies
Marco Carnelos
The tensions with Iran, the impasse in Yemen, the threats to maritime traffic and oil facilities in the Gulf, and, most of all, the unchanged Qatari policies, its good PRs capabilities to offset the imposed isolation and the poor effectiveness of the sanctions adopted against Doha (apparently even counterproductive), may have finally prompted a reconsideration of the zero-sum game policies pursued so far.
Expert Opinions

At the same time, as the Islamic Republic sees Tel Aviv as Washington’s collaborator in planning Soleimani’s assassination, it may also consider targeting the Israeli interests. The most likely place for the realization of such a scenario would be the Israeli-occupied Golan heights. This would make sense for Iran, as the move would be considered not only as a response to Soleimani’s killing, but also to the frequent Israeli strikes against the Iranian positions in Syria. However, any operation against the US or Israel in Iraq or Syria will most likely be conducted not directly by Iran, but by the pro-Iran forces, as a direct move entails the risk of a full-fledged war between the sides.

In this vein, Soleimani’s assassination will not only not result in downgrading Iran’s regional activities, but it will lead Iran toward more reliance on its vast regional network to deal with the increasing threats and activities of the hostile actors. At the same time and contrary to some speculations, the event will not change the principles of the Islamic Republic’s policy in Syria and Iraq, including its partnership with Russia in the Syrian conflict. Appointing Soleimani’s successor, Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Iranian Supreme Leader asked him to stick to the Quds Force’s plans under Soleimani. This fact, together with Ghaani’s several years of service as Soleimani’s deputy would mean we should expect more continuity than change in Iran’s regional policy.

Soleimani’s assassination could have serious implications at other levels. At the international level, not only assassinating a high-ranking military official of a sovereign state in the territory of another sovereign state is in stark violation of international law, but it might also set up a dangerous procedure, resorting to which the great powers can conduct acts of targeted “state terror” and introduce them as legitimate pre-emptive moves. Indeed, Israel has for several years used a similar approach against the Palestinian and Lebanese figures, but when a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, i.e. the United States is concerned, everything is much more dangerous.

At the regional level, ISIS and other hardline terrorist groups appear to be the main winners of the current trend. Soleimani was known to be Iran’s most effective commander in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, despite their longstanding hostilities, Iran and the US were for a long time following a major common goal in these two countries, i.e. fighting terrorism. Now that Tehran and Washington are shifting their focus toward targeting each other, terrorist groups could find a suitable time and space for a revival and comeback. 

Generally speaking, it could be said that unlike what the American officials have been claiming over the past several days, the “post-Soleimani Middle East” is going to be a much more dangerous place, not only for the US, but also for the countries and people of the region.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.