Qassem Soleimani’s Assassination and Its Aftermath

by Ralitsa Trifonova & Marian Karagyozov


If the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, on 3 January 2020, was intended to forcefully bring Iran to the negotiating table for a new deal with the USA, then its masterminds should have made wiser calculations. The annihilation of one of the most influential and respected figures not only in Iran but the entire Middle East was a serious blow to the Islamic Republic. But instead of being fatal for the rulers in Tehran, it brought the entire region to the brink of war.

Relations between Iran and the USA have been progressively worsening since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the U.S.-supported Shah Pahlavi. Washington imposed its first sanctions on Iran in November that same year after a group of students seized the American embassy in Tehran and took its personnel hostage.

* Ralitsa Trifonova is currently working for an organisation specialising in open source intelligence for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism purposes.

** Marian Karagyozov is based in Istanbul as a Bulgarian National Radio Turkey correspondent.

However, throughout the years, this negative tendency has been interrupted when the interests of the two countries overlapped. The USA supplied weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, even though it officially sided with Iraq. In the aftermath of 9/11, Iran supported the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, provided valuable intelligence about the Taliban and arrested and deported hundreds of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had found shelter in the country. (Sadat & Hughes, 2010) Pragmatism prevailed over ideology, and both countries demonstrated that they could cooperate on issues of mutual interest while disagreeing in other areas. This was evident during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which was completed in 2011 (where Soleimani proper played an instrumental role), the fight against ISIS and the signature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) about the Iranian nuclear program.

What went wrong?

Soleimani’s assassination was preceded by a series of direct and indirect attacks by each side. Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy was met by the “being allergic to pressure” Iranian strategy. Tensions have been rising since May 2018, when the U.S. President announced that he would withdraw from the JCPOA, which he called “the worst deal ever negotiated” (The Economist, 2017). Instead, the Trump administration set out twelve demands that should be part of a new agreement with Iran, including ending its proliferation of ballistic missiles, terminating its support to groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Hizbullah, the Houthis, the Taliban, and withdrawing from Syria. (Al Jazeera, 2018) Understandably, Iran has rejected these demands because accepting them would mean that the country should obliterate its entire regional policy. Gradually, the USA re-imposed primary and secondary sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities, thus, distancing major international companies that since 2016 had started returning to the Iranian market. The Islamic Republic was deprived of one of the core pillars of the deal – limitations in its nuclear program in exchange for foreign investments and re-integration of the Iranian economy into the global financial system. Additionally, in April 2019, President Trump designated the IRGC (including its Quds Force) as a foreign terrorist organisation, emphasising that this was the first time the United States has ever named a part of another government as a terrorist organisation. (The White House, 2019) Later that same month, the USA revoked the sanctions waivers that had allowed Iran’s biggest customers to import oil from it. A senior Iranian official told the International Crisis Group that “we are in a full-fledged economic war. Even during the oil-for-food program, Iraq, which had invaded another country [Kuwait], was allowed to export its oil. The U.S. cannot strangle us and expect us to do nothing”. (Vaez & Rafati, 2019)

Iran gave the other parties to the nuclear agreement (mostly the E.U. states) time to implement a mechanism to counter the U.S. sanctions, and when it turned out that this would not function, it began incrementally downgrading its obligations under JCPOA. The military confrontation in the Middle East started mounting up too. In May 2019, four commercial oil ships (two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati) were attacked off Fujairah’s coast. The U.S. government blamed Iran. Attacks on American and Saudi interests took place in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq, with analysts suspecting that Iran was using its partners in the region to send a clear message to the U.S. – if diplomacy does not work, we have other options. In June 2019, Iran shot down Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, which according to the U.S. Department of Defence, was operating in the Gulf of Oman and had not violated Iranian airspace during its mission. (Garamone, 2019) Iran claimed exactly the opposite. Then, in September 2019, Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were significantly damaged by cruise missiles and drone attacks by an unknown perpetrator. Oil markets were disrupted, and the prices went up, reaching the biggest rise in almost 30 years. (Blair & Bell, 2019) On 27 December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk, which hosted Iraqi, the U.S. and international coalition personnel, was attacked, killing an American contractor and injuring several Iraqi and U.S. citizens. (McLaughlin & Martinez, 2019) The U.S. responded by launching airstrikes across Iraq and Syria, killing 25 Kataib Hizbullah fighters. Days later, in response to the attacks, dozens of protesters attacked the U.S. embassy compound in the Baghdad Green Zone. Protesters shouted “Down, Down USA!” and raised the flags of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (an umbrella group that was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS), of which Kataib Hizbullah is part. (Al Jazeera, 2019)

The strike

The U.S. and Iran continued confronting each other on Iraqi soil, adding to the already complicated political situation in the Arab country. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the commander of Kataib Hizbullah and deputy chief of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, was also killed in the American drone attack in the early morning of 3 January 2020. It was his military personnel who had welcomed Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport, where the bombing took place. According to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, the Quds Force commander was carrying Iran’s response to a Saudi proposal regarding the situation in the region and Iraq. The message had been conveyed by the latter to the Iranian government. (Tawfeeq & Humayun, 2020) While Saudi Arabia was one of the regional powers that were not in favour of the JCPOA and welcomed the U.S. withdrawal from it (Ghantous, 2018), both UAE and Saudi Arabia made steps of rapprochement with Teheran, especially after the Aramco bombings. The two Gulf States have lobbied for stricter U.S. policies towards Iran, but a large-scale military conflict is not in their interests.

It is questionable whether the assassination of Soleimani was strictly a military objective and a direct U.S. response to the attacks on American sites in the Middle East, more specifically, the violence in Iraq at the end of 2019. While it is true that Soleimani was a severe adversary and a threat to the interests of the USA and its allies in the region, Israel, in particular, the versions of Trump’s administration in the first days after the attack became more and more contradicting, thus casting doubt about the real motives behind this bold military operation and the support it had within the ruling circles in Washington. Right after the strike, the U.S. Department of Defence issued a statement saying that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region” and he was also behind the 27 December attack. (U.S. Department of Defence, 2020) Then, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the airstrike that murdered Soleimani had been approved because there were “imminent threats to American lives”, even though exact day and time were not known. On 10 January 2020, Donald Trump himself commented that the potential targets of Soleimani’s future operations would have been four American embassies. (Stepansky, 2020) Several days later, U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper disproved this version by explaining that he did not see any evidence that Iran was planning to attack four American embassies. (Baker & Gibbons-Neff, 2020) Iraqi military and intelligence officers also questioned the official U.S. narrative by saying that they had no direct evidence about who fired the rockets that hit K-1 military base. Furthermore, they pointed out that the rockets were launched from a Sunni Muslim part of Kirkuk Province where ISIS was known to operate, and the area would have been hostile for a Shiite group like Kataib Hizbullah, whose presence in the province has perished since 2014. (Rubin, 2020)

The aftermath

When Iran responded with well-calculated strikes on Ayn Al-Asad military base in the Anbar Province, and another one in Erbil and the USA did not immediately disclose the damages (Reuters subsequently reported that more than 100 U.S. troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from the Iranian attacks (Ali & Stewart, 2020)), it became evident that both parties wanted to de-escalate. The U.S. and its partners in the region cannot bear the burden of another all-out conflict because it will change the balance of power in the region not in their favour and, considering the stronger stance of players like Russia and China and the asymmetrical operations of local forces, the positive outcome for the U.S. “camp” is far from guaranteed. Past experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan can serve as warning signs for the U.S. administration. Also, 2020 is an election year for President Trump, and he would not risk starting an armed conflict in a region he pledged to disengage from during his previous campaign.

Iran’s retaliation was inevitable because Qassem Soleimani was the most popular figure in the country. A study conducted by the Centre for International and Security Studies at Maryland showed that in August 2019 82% of the Iranians viewed him favourably, while 59% viewed him very favourably. (Gallagher, et al., 2019) He was the architect of what author Hassan Ahmadian calls Iran’s “forward deterrence in the region” and his annihilation “targeted first and foremost Iran’s national security in the eyes of both Iranian officials and the Iranian public.” (Ahmadian, 2020)

Millions of Iranians took to the streets to participate in the funeral procession of the two martyred commanders. Iran had no other option but to respond “with fire”. All leaders from the so-called Resistance Axis (the network of regional alliances Iran built during the past decades thanks to many factors, among which the efforts and personal charisma of General Soleimani) declared that they would take action whenever needed, but instead of relying on its partners, Iran chose not only to attack the U.S. directly but to claim responsibility for its strikes publicly. According to former British diplomat Alastair Crooke, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated “effective military prowess”, which is not enough to confront the U.S. or Israel but it can “impose asymmetric costs on any adversary, and spread them across the region. The U.S. can no longer credibly invade Iran in order to suppress a concealed and prolonged missile assault on American and Israeli targets. In short, Iran has acquired something of a military edge – enough to establish deterrence, at least.” (Crooke, 2020) It is also worth mentioning that Iran did not use its most powerful missiles in the retaliatory attacks in Iraq. (Ераносян, 2020)

Not only did Iran not sit on the negotiating table, but it also announced that it would limit further its obligations under the JCPOA, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating that this move was reversible, should sanctions on the country be lifted.

After Soleimani and Al-Muhandis’s assassinations, the U.S. relations with Iraq became more complicated. In January 2020, Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution calling on all foreign troops to leave the country, with analysts pointing out that by executing the attacks on the Baghdad International Airport, the USA violated the Strategic Framework Agreement between the two countries stipulating that “the United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea, and air as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries; nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq”. (U.S. Department of State, 2008) Yet, the USA military refused to leave, and since January 2020, there have been at least eight occasions of armed attacks against American interests in Iraq, including the latest rocket attack on Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, where Iraqi and International Coalition forces were hurt. (BBC News, 2020)

It is highly likely that the tensions between the USA and Iran will remain, at least until the next U.S. president becomes known. Donald Trump’s objective – to keep imposing stricter sanctions on Iran in order to convince it that it has no other option but to give in to U.S. demands – does not seem to have been accomplished with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. Iran will continue to rely on its regional allies to inflict more damage on U.S. interests in the Middle East. Most of them operate in conflict areas, and it would be tough to trace any violent attacks they commit back to the Iranian government. This spiral of instability will affect other players in the region like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iraq and may challenge the U.S.-Taliban negotiations.


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