At the direction of US President Trump, the US military killed General Qasem Soleimani in a rocket attack at the Baghdad International Airport. General Soleimani was the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and one of the most influential men within the Iranian regime. This is the latest escalation between the US and Iran and a colossal one at that. There have been many opportunities to kill Soleimani in the past but were ruled out because of the major blowback that would follow. It seems that the current US administration has ignored past warnings.

General Soleimani was seen to be a charismatic leader within the Iranian military and because of that charisma, his history and his recent successes – he was seen to be a growing and revered Iranian figure. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Soleimani commanded a division, in fact when he first went into battle in 1980, he led men that he personally trained. Today, his influence can be seen in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Palestine after he took command of the Quds Force in 1998. The Quds Force is a unit that is directed to carry out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities in foreign countries. The Quds Force answers only to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, which also insinuates that Soleimani would have had a close relationship with the Supreme Leader himself. Soleimani received Iran’s highest military honour last year. Soleimani was a unique Iranian figure that has been building his legend since the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979. By killing Soleimani, the US risks creating a modern martyr within the tale of the Iranian Revolution.

In 2007, the United States designated the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. Canada did so in 2012 and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2018. The Pentagon is describing the killing of Soleimani as a “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad. The US believes that Soleimani is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

In recent years, the Quds Force and Soleimani have been tasked with fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria while also furthering Iranian interests in the region. Soleimani and the Quds Force helped prop up the Bashir al-Assad regime in Syria. In recent years, Soleimani took up the role of deputy head of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is the umbrella organization for all of the Shia paramilitary forces that have close ties with Iran. Estimates of the size of the PMF vary, but it could be between 100,000-150,000 militiamen. In 2016, it was recognised as an independent military force that would answer only to the Iraqi Prime Minister.

After his killing, the US claims that Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” The Pentagon also claims that Soleimani planned acts on coalition bases in the past, including the attack on 27 December that claimed the lives of Iraqi personnel and an American contractor. In consequence of this attack, the US military launched strikes on the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, which is part of the PMF, and it receives logistical aid from Iran. Because Kata’ib Hezbollah is part of the PMF, the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Madhi condemned the attack on the group as they have been fighting against ISIS and is recognised as an official paramilitary force. This also led to the recent protests outside of the US embassy in Baghdad’s secure Green Zone. For Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi sympathizers, it demonstrated that they could walk up to, and storm, the very gates of the US and make their anger heard and reverberate globally. Yesterday, Iraqi security forces regained control of the area surrounding the US embassy and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the hundreds of protestors.

Next Steps

Only last year Iran was seizing ships in the region and launched drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Because of the death of Soleimani, Iran may want to continue this strategy but not be restricted to just that. Obviously any oil-related action will impact the US economy during an election year, but will not be enough to avenge an Iranian legend. Although any countermove from Iran will impact the US election year and President Trump’s record on foreign affairs. The US emplaced colossal economic sanctions on Iran which pushed Iran into a corner as they perceive the US as waging economic warfare until they capitulate to US terms. Even after the seizing of ships and the drone strike on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities, both the US and Iran ensured that the simmering conflict would not boil over. This will change.

The 27 December attack by Kata’ib Hezbollah may be the first of many now that Soleimani is dead. Iran will want to make sure that the US knows that is can influence the situation in Iraq and make things more difficult for US operations. In Yemen, Iran has been supplying Houthi rebels will a litany of technology and arms and that knowledge and arms transfer may now be increased to the various groups under the PMF. Iranian support in Yemen has included IED- and drone-technology. This would make operations for the US more difficult in Iraq if it has to deal with a new, and revitalized, Shia insurgency and it would not be without its local allies.

As aforementioned, the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Madhi condemned the US attack on Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iraqi politicians sympathetic to Iran did fan the flames to create the protests that stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone. The death of Soleimani will put fuel on the fire when it comes to Iraq’s Sunni/Shia sectarian divide. Iraq is a Shia majority country as is Iran. Aggression to US forces in Iraq will increase either from Iranian elements in Iraq or from those sympathetic to Iran. Regardless, Iran could destabilize Iraq, and its government, further and plunge the country into a sectarian conflict as seen after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Iran can make the situation in Afghanistan more complex and volatile by supporting various warlords as they had done after the Soviet withdrawal. Iran could also increase the supply of munitions to other regions. Iranian munitions have been found in various African conflicts.  Although these options are long-term objectives when it comes to disrupting US policy objectives. The truth of the matter is that Iran will have to make a significant parry within a few days or week. This probably means further protests, but also some action that will shock the geopolitical stage.

The death of one of Iran’s most powerful individuals will not be unpunished and Soleimani’s death will have far-reaching consequences to US policy in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has condemned the killing of Soleimani and calls is extremely dangerous and foolish and that the “US bear responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.” The Iranians will not stand for the death of Soleimani and simmering hostilities between the US and Iran will be at a boil.

The United States has had many opportunities to kill Soleimani in the past. It seems peculiar that the death of an American contractor and the protests at the US embassy in Baghdad would spark such a targeted killing. The US states that the killing will prevent attacks that were being planned by Soleimani, but those plans can be taken up by his successors. The Iranian government now has to avenge one of the most influential figures in Iran’s government and history. Soleimani made few public appearances, but he was seen as the apotheosized heavyweight of Iran’s regional influence. It does not seem to be the calculated escalation that one would expect from political and military leaders as Iran has to avenge one of its revolutionary heroes and those who saw Soleimani as a hero in Iraq will be infuriated.

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]