Updated: Jan 7, 2020
The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020, was a major escalation in the conflict between the United States and Iran. To assess the implications of this move for Iran, the United States, and the Middle East, we asked ten of Wikistrat's top experts for their initial analysis of the significance of this event.
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami, Professor of International Relations and Director, Institute for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, Durham University:
From Trump’s (limited) perspective, this action makes sense for the following reasons:
1. Reinforces his macho foreign policy.
2. Deflects from impeachment deliberations in Congress.
3. Shows his Arab allies that he has not abandoned them in their struggle against the IRI.
4. As the IRI is already weak economically and clearly vulnerable regionally, such a “decisive” act might encourage Tehran to seek dialogue with the White House, which would help in the presidential campaign, show decisiveness and courage in the face of threats, and put the Democrats on the defensive.
5. And if in the meanwhile, the White House manages to renegotiate the JCPOA then that would be the icing on the cake for the Trump administration.
6. The loss of Soleimani will leave the Leader somewhat vulnerable as the two were very close and the two saw Iran’s regional policies in the same way, so moderate forces might try to exercise their muscle a bit as well. If that happens then, from the WH’s perspective, Trump might end up with someone who he can negotiate with.
For Iran, this is a major blow:
1. Tehran has lost its most influential and popular military commander. To underline the point, no military figure in Iran since Reza Khan in the early 1920s has enjoyed the same level of popularity.
2. The Leader has lost a close ally at home, and an instrument of his will in the wider region.
3. The ball is now very much in Tehran’s court and Trump’s calculation is that Tehran is too weak to escalate, so these are uncertain times and we will need to see what the deliberations at the SNSC in Tehran will be today to gauge the mood there.
4. This can really go either way. There will be those who will argue that Tehran must stand firm and “teach the Americans a harsh” lesson, if for no other reason than to deter them from such bold acts again. Other voices will argue for a limited response, hitting an American-specific target; and there’ll be those who will argue that Iran must turn this into a regional crisis, a quagmire for the US, from which it cannot recover. So, targeting American allies as well as American military and economic infrastructure will be a high priority.
5. The regime will milk this to breathe life into its lackluster position at home.
1. Arab allies of the US will be pleased to see the WH take decisive action. This is akin to the late King Abdullah of KSA asking President Obama to “cut off the head of the snake”. They will fear retaliation on their soil but will have been assured of American support. They might even buy more American weapons to bring the Americans closer to them.
2. Israel will be very nervous as this is not a military escalation of their choosing. Israel was happy to see Iran under pressure in Lebanon and Iraq, so this will change the local dynamics, perhaps in Iran’s favor.
3. Iran’s local allies will be eager to retaliate, and Tehran cannot appear weak or meek in the face of the reactions to Soleimani’s assassination.
4. Baghdad will have to work with both Iran and the US, but will resist becoming their proxy war arena, so it will toughen its language with both. But it cannot do without them as each serves a particular function in Iraq, so it will huff and puff but go back into its shell of denial.
5. Iran might use this crisis as the opportunity to revisit its regional relationships and try to heal some of the open wounds which have shaped Iran’s interactions regionally.
Dr. F. Gregory Gause, Head of the International Affairs Department, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University:
The killing of Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad Airport represents an escalation of the Iranian-American shadow war, but only from one side. Iran has been in conflict with the United States since the end of the JCPOA and the imposition of new sanctions by the Trump Administration. During 2019, it attacked oil tankers outside the Strait of Hormuz, launched drones and missiles against Saudi oil facilities, and targeted Americans and American facilities in Iraq. The United States reacted cautiously, if not passively, to these Iranian escalations. The question is: what changed to lead to the American attack on the Iranian-supported Hezbollah Brigades militia in Iraq and now the killing of Soleimani?
It is hard to escape the conclusion that President Trump is driven here less by large strategic interests and more by specific threats to individual Americans. For a president who has touted his desire to get out of the Middle East, talked about ending “endless wars,” and seemed desperate to have a phone call with the Iranian president this past fall, both the massive retaliation for the death of one American contractor in the attack on the Hezbollah Brigades and the killing of Soleimani are uncharacteristic steps. He remains surrounded by advisors who want a harder line on Iran than he is disposed to take. They have been able to use his emotional reactions to the one American death in Iraq and then the Iranian-inspired attack on the American embassy in Baghdad to get his approval for an escalation against Iran that they had ready to go.
What the long-term goal of the American escalation is remains in doubt. Is it to bring Iran back to the table, as President Trump has said in the past, or bring down the regime, as Secretary Pompeo has publicly hinted at on numerous occasions? Neither goal seems very realistic right now.
Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, Rome, Italy:
The targeted assassination of General Qasem Soleimani by US forces in Iraq needs to be understood in the context of regional competition between an aspiring, revisionist Iran and a (largely) status quo-oriented US. The US has both the capabilities and the willingness to maintain the current balance of power, while Iran retains an inflated sense of its own position and has been eager to wager significant assets in order to revise the strategic pecking order to its favor. Over the past year, it gambled on operations that targeted international energy supplies and transportation links and its proxies have been waging a nascent war of attrition across the Middle East.
General Soleimani was a key figure – on both the tactical and strategic level – who oversaw Iranian activities in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Gulf states, Israel, and Europe. When the order came down to besiege and, ultimately, sack the US embassy in Baghdad, Soleimani saw yet another opportunity to humble the US and gain yet another incremental advantage in the region. He did not understand the US’ resolve or the limits of Iranian power. His assassination marks the end of an era – the era of US dialoguing with its international adversaries – and opens a new chapter of concentrated force projections.
The implications of this policy shift are likely to unfold on the regional-strategic level. Revolutionary Iran has, since 2003, been consolidating its position along its 'north-western flank,' from Iran, through to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea. The US assassination of Soleimani will seriously interrupt that project. Soon the Al Quds Force will be gripped by infighting and, although the desire to strike back against the US and/or US allies will grow high, that desire will likely be tempered by the more assertive US presence in the region.
Already, reports of US troop deployments are being circulated. The US will not invade Iran, but it will target, with intensity, Iranian forces and proxies abroad. Since Iran seeks to preserve the regime above all else, it is unlikely that it would further risk additional US actions. This assassination may be the black-eye needed to restrain Iranian strategic ambitions for the foreseeable future. While there will be a lot of talk in relation to retribution, Iran lacks real capabilities to strike at the US without triggering a massive reaction by Washington.
Dr. Raz Zimmt, Iran Expert, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS):
Qasem Soleimani’s killing constitutes a very hard blow for Iran, who might not find his successor, Esmail Qa'ani, as a suitable replacement for the commander of the Quds Force. Soleimani served in his position for more than two decades and was the main executor of Iran’s regional policy in the last decade.
In the short term, Iran will strive to respond harshly to Soleimani’s killing and avenge his death by hitting American targets or vital American interests in the region and even the world (for example, US consulates and embassies across the world), either by proxies operating under its command or directly. However, its ability to carry out a revenge attack depends on operational circumstances and on its ability to identify relevant targets in response. The Iranian regime is facing a major dilemma: to respond to Soleimani's death and risk a military confrontation with the US or to avoid a response and undermine Iran's deterrence.
The assassination constitutes another step in the continued escalation between Iran and the US in face of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy vis-à-vis Iran. The American action is estimated to further increase Iran’s determination to continue the assertive and aggressive policy it has adopted since May 2019 in the Gulf in response to the American strategy, and maybe even escalate its measures in regard to its withdrawal from its commitments to the JCPOA.
The American action is predicted to strengthen the hawkish position among decision-makers in Iran and further weaken the standing of the pragmatic camp, led by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. As a result, the chances of an Iranian willingness to return to the negotiations table narrows even more.
Regarding Israel at this point, it’s doubtable that Iran has the interest to pull also Israel to a limited military conflict – let alone a total one – with Iran. Therefore, it can be assessed that Iran will try to hit American targets or American interests in the Gulf or Iraq first, and not broaden the conflict also to a northern front with Israel.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Middle East Forum:
The killing of Qasem Soleimani with one stroke removes the architect and chief executor of the Iranian practice of revolutionary and political warfare which, more than any other single factor, is the cause of the outsize influence Iran currently enjoys in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The killing removes the veil from an already existing confrontation between Iran and the US in which Iran has been seeking, by activation of the IRGC/Qods Force's assets in Iraq, to secure the withdrawal or expulsion of the US from that country. This effort and this conflict are set to continue. It is now Iran's move.
Largely thanks to the strategy applied by Soleimani, Teheran possesses a “suite” of options available to it, including popular demonstrations, rocket attacks on US facilities, and political pressure on the Iraqi government to demand the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. At the same time, Israel's experience in hitting Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq in the recent period demonstrates that the Iranians do not always attempt a large-scale kinetic response to blows against them. Rather, their propaganda often portrays them as engaged in a long, patient project for the transformation of the countries in question, in which immediate military action is only one possible option.
On this occasion, I would assess, however, that a visible and significant Iranian response may be likely because of the magnitude of the humiliation Iran has suffered. As noted above, Iran has a variety of options, but the dilemma now facing Iranian strategists will be how to be seen to have responded to the killing of Soleimani without provoking a large-scale conflict with the US and/or its regional allies which Iran does not want.
Dr. Rebecca B. Molloy, Senior Analyst, Wikistrat:
While the assassination of the head of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, a US-designated terrorist organization, marks a serious escalation in the already tense American-Iranian relations, it is far from being an opening to World War III. Soleimani’s successor, Brig-Gen Esmail Qaani, will hit the ground running. The IRGC is part of a broader system that does not rely on individuals.
Soleimani’s death will have an impact but there will be no discernible change to Iran’s regional web of operation. However, this could turn out to be a defining moment for the Middle East and the United States’ role in the region. Iranian reprisal is imminent against any US-related target, soft or military, that Tehran deems vulnerable, and this may be the beginning of a cycle of actions and reactions, including attacks on US troop positions in Iraq, as well as mobilization of Iranian proxies, particularly Hezbollah and PIJ. For its part, the US is deploying 3,500 more troops from the 82nd airborne to the CENTCOM region, according to defense and military officials. They are a response force to Iranian threats throughout the region.
Nonetheless, it is important to keep sight of the assassination’s context, however unsuccessful the US has been in articulating a coherent Iran strategy. To date, Iran has shot down a US drone, attacked Saudi oil facilities, struck a US military base killing one contractor, and carried out the US embassy storming in Baghdad. Soleimani’s movements in Iraq indicated overconfidence and sloppiness on the part of Iran, much of which is a reflection of the effects of biting economic sanctions and desperation.
Dr. Saud Al-Sharafat, Founder and Chairman of the Shorufat Center for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism, Amman, Jordan:
I think Soleimani’s killing was designed to send a pointed message to Iran that the United States will not tolerate continued provocation. I agree with the former commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and a former CIA director, retired Gen. David Petraeus, who said that "Trump May Have Helped ‘Reestablish Deterrence’ by Killing Soleimani.” At the same time, Iran’s “very fragile” situation may limit its response.
Oliver Cornock, Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Business Group:
This does indeed represent a major escalation of tensions in the region and is far from a happy start to 2020. Soleimani was a tactician whose influence had grown significantly. He was widely considered the mastermind behind the growth of Iranian influence via its many proxies, from Yemen to Bahrain, Lebanon to Syria, and of course Iraq, where it has a significant array of militia networks. Underreported, but no less telling, Trump and Soleimani taunted each other on twitter. The US has Iran’s Revolutionary Guard designated as a terrorist organization.
Exactly why the US, and specifically President Trump, has chosen now to assassinate him is unclear – the New Year’s Eve attack by Iranian-backed militia on the US embassy in Baghdad could have been the final straw. And as an aside, while I think it's rather flippant to suggest the threat of impeachment and a Presidential election campaign is part of the reason, it is not out of the realms of reality. (In a similar vein, any knock-on effect on Israel could play to the equally imperiled Netanyahu and his hawkish tendencies).
More difficult still to predict is quite what the fallout will be. In terms of direct attacks on US assets, it seems unlikely to my mind, though possible, particularly when the proxy route and asymmetric options are so much easier for Iran. In short, I think, while we should be braced for the potential of direct retaliation, other attacks are more likely. This will raise concerns in the Gulf particularly, and for Israel. We should also not forget Iraq itself, where the Iranian influence is so great and where this attack took place. If it were to become know that Iraqi intelligence aided the US in this attack, for example, the fallout could be immense.
De-escalation at this juncture looks very difficult. Iran will be looking for revenge and the assassination of such a high-profile figure means that it is likely to see any target as fair game.
Michael Pregent, Hudson Institute
Soleimani is dead, What’s next? The general who stands next to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader is no more. The charismatic terrorist who makes threats with a smile and subordinates Iraqis is no more. (Show a photo of the Supreme Leader with Soleimani and then a photo with Iraqi militia leaders Qais Khazali and Hadi Al-Amiri).
Qasem Soleimani is… was a designated terrorist, designated for killing Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese… Soleimani was always willing to fight to the last Arab in his quest to build a land-bridge to the Levant and [had] a capability to sustain a conflict with the US and Israel in order to take back Jerusalem or Quds and be the power broker in the Middle East.
In Iraq, Qasem Soleimani’s influence was so brazen that he walked around in broad daylight taking selfies; the Shadow General was out of the shadows taking photos and claiming victory over ISIS where his militia took credit for what the US and the Iraqi special forces did.
Soleimani’s Iraqi commanders formed a political party and came in second in Iraqi parliament elections – and then Soleimani made them the largest voting bloc in the Council of Representative [so] that they ran Iraq through intimidation and a killing campaign.
Soleimani’s power seconded the Iraqi Prime Minister to a “yes man” position. In November, Soleimani took over a meeting on how to deal with the protests where Iraqis were chanting “Iraq hurra – Iran bara!” or “Free Iraq – Iran out!”
Soleimani told the Iraqi Prime Minister to move out of his seat and took over a national security council meeting to tell Iraqi generals and militia leaders that it was time to shut the Internet off and kill protesters – a tactic used in Tehran that resulted in the deaths of 1,500 protesters in December.
Soleimani was so comfortable that he landed at BIAP and went to baggage claim, met with militia protocol and the second most feared man in Iraq – Abu Mehdi al-Mohandes, a designated terrorist, responsible for killing Americans and Muslims, Christians, and Jews across the region. He actually received a government paycheck and controlled a budget of 1.2 billion dollars for salaries, money that came from the Iraqi government, money that moved through American banks to Iraq. That’s how powerful Soleimani and Mohandes were, they were considered the real power in Iraq. This changes everything.
Laith al-Ajlouni, Jordanian political economy researcher:
In Amman, security sources believe that even the American presence in Jordan could be a potential target for Iranian retribution as Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in the country’s northwest served as a refueling stop for some 20 C-17A Globemasters deployed to Iraq over the weekend.
The heightened presence of the Jordanian gendarmes is visible near the US Embassy in the southwest Amman neighborhood of Abdoun, even as the Americans evacuated Baghdad diplomatic staff to Jordan after last week’s siege.