The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, at Baghdad’s international airport on January 3 is yet another example of the reckless actions of the Trump administration. The targeted killing was clearly opportunistic and will have unintended consequences.
General Soleimani was not the evil genius behind a terrorist organization that the US media machine will make him out to be. He was a senior military officer of the Iranian state and a national hero. Soleimani’s death will not decapitate the Quds Force — which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — undermine the Iranian government or change Tehran’s foreign policy in Iraq.
Qassem Soleimani: The Stage Is Set for the Middle East in 2020
Yet his killing will enrage and galvanize the Iranians all the more to attack and limit US power in the Middle East. Soleimani’s death on Iraqi soil will likely strengthen popular support for the Iranian government, which will portray the general as a Shia martyr and US President Donald Trump as a murderer.
Trump has now aligned himself with all the other proponents of assassinating enemies — Joseph Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin. Even friends and allies of the US will struggle to justify extra-judicial killings, especially after the uproar over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Where will the US assassinate its next victim — the streets of Paris or London? Though Trump will be cheered on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing of the Republican Party, he has opened a Pandora’s box of troubles.
What Will Iran Do?
Iran has many options for retaliation, and it is very likely this will be asymmetric. Unlike Trump’s knee-jerk behavior, this will be carefully calculated. The Iranians could, for example, torpedo Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s $500-million yacht, where it is reported he sleeps most nights, or completely destroy Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil-processing plant, this time in its entirety.
Similarly, they could target the desalination plants and the crude oil storage depots in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Or, as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has darkly hinted at before, Iran could launch a missile at one of the towers in Dubai.
Any of these actions would have a devastating effect on the economies of the Gulf states. The Arab monarchies in the region are undoubtedly on the phone to Washington begging the US for protection and, at the same time, sending messages to Tehran denying any knowledge or responsibility for Soleimani’s assassination.
But the Iranians will do none of these things. They will pause for thought and think through the consequences. It is no coincidence that Persians have loved chess for centuries. Iran will want to cause maximum damage and make a strategic gain, instead of satisfying a childish urge for mere retaliation.
The government of Iraq, which is already under Iranian influence, has seen its sovereignty repeatedly violated by US military action. Iraq will likely ally with Iran in its response. Iran can wreak enormous strategic damage to the US by pushing the Iraqi government to order all US troops out of Iraq. This would likely lead to Exxon and other US oil companies to abandon their investments there. The US exit from Iraq would be a huge strategic gain not only for Iran but also Russia. The Kremlin is all too eager to replace the US as the local superpower in the Middle East.
Iran will also order the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to make the US presence in Iraq untenable. Anticipating this, the State Department has already ordered all US citizens to leave Iraq. Unless the US wants to engage in full-scale war with both Iraqi militias and the Iranian military, there is little that Washington can do.
The US has already lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The same goes for the Kurds and the Syrians, who have all been betrayed by Donald Trump. Not one of the Gulf Arab states will support an all-out war with Iran, nor would Congress or the US electorate. Trump, as usual, has provided no leadership — just petulant anger when he cannot get his way.
This is one result of all the adults — Jim Mattis, John F. Kelly, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson — leaving the White House. Trump is now advised only by dependent toadies. The world is not in safe hands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.