“It is of Great Significance and Gravity” says Leeds Professor on General Soleimani’s Assassination

In the early hours of Friday morning, a drone airstrike was launched at a convoy carrying the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force and the Iranian Major General, General Qasem Soleimani. The assassination resulted in killing at least seven people with Soleimani’s body later identified.

The airstrike was carried out by the United States at the direction of the US President, Donald Trump, who tweeted a picture of the United States flag shortly before the United States confirmed responsibility for the attack.

The United States said in a statement by the Pentagon that it carried out the attack as a deterrent to Soleimani’s plans “actively developing plans to attack US diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.

Soleimani rose quickly through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was regarded as the second most powerful person in Iranian politics. He was once described by a former CIA officer in Iraq, John Maguire, as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today”. In 2003 when the US invaded Iraq, he directed militias to target troops and US bases resulting in the deaths of hundreds. He was credited as a major player behind the Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s military strategy against rebel forces that allowed the Syrian government to take back key towns. An estimated 112-117,000 civilian deaths have occurred as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

Dr Alex Waterman, Research Fellow in Security, Terrorism and Insurgency at the University of Leeds when asked how Iran might respond said:

“The killing is clearly a massive escalation.  Suleimani commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, which controls Iran’s external sub-conventional warfare and external intelligence activities. Yet all-out war is unlikely. Iran will certainly respond, but most likely in a manner consistent with its long-held doctrine, drawing on the network of asymmetric assets and militias. Suleimani played a critical role in building to target US interests in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan. From an Iranian perspective, this approach is a far greater asset with which to hurt US interests than an escalation in the conventional sense.”

Tensions have escalated between the two countries after rocket attacks were carried out on US airbases in Iraq. These were blamed on an Iranian-backed militia. The US also pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty between the two countries last year that had been negotiated under the previous Obama administration.

When asked how Iraq might respond, Waterman answered:

“Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi has condemned what he termed an assassination of an Iraqi military commander (referring to the commander of the Katai’ib Hezbollah, the Shia paramilitary organisation) and a “figure from another country on Iraqi soil” as a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation.” Al-Mahdi indicated that the killings violated the conditions governing the US presence in Iraq, implying that the future of US deployments in Iraq, and US-Iraq relations more broadly, may come under increasing pressure.”

Since the airstrike, “World War Three” has started trending on Twitter with users fearing the move will continue to escalate tensions in the region. Iran promised to take ‘severe revenge’ and the US has deployed more than 650 soldiers to Kuwait. The British Foreign Office is currently warning people not to travel to Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Iran except for essential travel. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry branded the government’s response as ‘pathetic’ and argued it was ‘too little and too late’.

There is also speculation that oil prices might rise as a result due to tensions being higher in the Persian Gulf. However, the eventual outcome of Friday’s assassination is still very much uncertain with Waterman saying “all-out war is unlikely”.

Journalist Oz Katerji said in a tweet:

There are also fears among Iraqi citizens that any escalating tensions between the two powers will likely play out in the country and affect civilians the most.

Discussing the impact of the airstrike, Dr James Worrall, Associate Professor in International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Leeds said:

“The assassination is probably the most significant escalation that Washington could make short of bombing Iran. It is of great significance and gravity and throws the region into further turmoil. Indeed this is very unlikely to remain contained in the region and already Hezbollah has ordered its resistance fighters around the world to avenge the death of Hajj Qassem.

“Given the extensive network of operatives and sympathisers on every continent, retaliation could come in pretty well any form near enough anywhere – and there is little the US will be able to do about it either in mitigation or in terms of prevention.

“Hezbollah is likely to pick its moment. It seems, therefore, that a cycle of escalation has started and it will play out over the much longer term than just the next few days and weeks. Indeed, this may be good for Tehran in the short term because it is likely to reduce internal pressure and create a rally-around-the-flag effect. The recent quite severe protests and partial uprising which were presenting a real issue for the Islamic Republic are likely to die down and mobilisation is likely to occur.

Worral also spoke of a book of his coming out next year that will examine “the way in which Qassem Suleimani has been used by the regime as a key figure who can appeal to a broad spectrum of Iranian society reaching parts that the clerics could not. He also has a wider role as a symbol (as well as a lynchpin in the creation of Iran’s network of clients and proxies) in the region meaning that his image has a significant mobilising function”.

Image Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP