“Martyrdom is the reward of his relentless efforts throughout these years. With his passing, by God’s will, his work and his path will not be stopped and closed, but [indeed] severe revenge awaits the criminals who stained their hands with his blood and that of other martyrs last night.” This is part of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s message on the death of General Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Republic’s most prominent military figure and head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“Martyr Soleimani is an international figure of Resistance, and all devotees of Resistance are now his avengers. Let all his friends—as well as all his enemies—know that the line of Resistance Jihad will continue with greater motivation,” Khamenei added, declaring three days of public mourning.
Famously described by John Maguire, a former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer in Iraq, as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today”, Soleimani was killed in the early hours of Friday, January 3, in US drone strikes on a convoy carrying him and a number of senior Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) leaders near Baghdad International Airport. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of PMF and a close companion of Soleimani’s, along with a few others were also killed in the operation.
“Iran’s response will in all likelihood be asymmetric, where it has an edge over the American military.”
“Iran’s response will in all likelihood be asymmetric, where it has an edge over the American military,” Mohammad Manzarpour, a former editor of Iranian English-language newspaper Tehran Times and current CEO of US-based new production firm Persis Media, told Inside Arabia. “The reprisal will probably not be immediate but will come in the next two weeks and be pervasive and persistent, that is, not limited to one location and one time.”
The US Department of Defense confirmed in a statement that “decisive defensive action” was taken “at the direction of the President” to eliminate Soleimani who, it claimed, was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
The US Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone was stormed and breached by a group of Soleimani supporters and members of the Iraqi paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah (KH) on December 31, 2019. The embassy breach came two days after the group’s positions in the Qaim district (along the Iraqi-Syrian border) came under US air strikes, killing at least 25 and wounding 55 KH fighters.
Iran-backed PMF members were finally persuaded to leave the US Embassy premises and end its siege reportedly in exchange for pledges from Iraqi parliamentarians to vote for “expelling all US occupation forces next week.”
“We will take all necessary actions if that doesn’t happen,” a Kataib Hezbollah spokesman added, echoing a similar stance voiced earlier by Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a rare gesture, al-Sadr had expressed willingness to work with pro-Iranian militia groups, his political rivals, to end the American military presence in Iraq. Sadr had also threatened that if political and legal efforts do not succeed, he would “take other actions” to expel US forces out of Iraq.
Within this context, the deadly US surgical drone strikes on Soleimani’s convoy seems to have been meant as a “preemptive” military action to prevent loss of American lives.
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the Pentagon statement concluded.
The premeditated assassination of Tehran’s most prominent military strategist will not only fail to deter attacks against US interests in the region, but on the contrary, will most likely draw drastic Iranian retaliation.
Most observers, however, believe that the premeditated assassination of Tehran’s most prominent military strategist will not only fail to deter attacks against US interests in the region, but on the contrary, will most likely draw drastic Iranian retaliation. This will in turn potentially lead to a major military confrontation between the two old adversaries and engulf the whole Middle East in a large-scale war.
“God help us,” tweeted Kelly Magsamen, a former senior official at the US National Security Council (NSC) under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Speaking of the harsh revenge promised by literally all Iranian officials, one should expect a big one, not just a limited attack on a US diplomatic compound or even military base, because they are possible responses to an insignificant US attack on, for instance, Iran’s consulate, not the assassination of a person who I believe is as high-ranking as the Iranian president,” Reza Khaasteh, a Tehran-based journalist with the Iran Front Page (IFP) news outlet told Inside Arabia.
According to US defense officials, Washington is deploying about 3500 additional troops to the region, including Iraq and Kuwait. Seven hundred such forces from the 82nd Airborne Division have already been dispatched in preparation for further escalation of tensions and possible counterattacks. Meanwhile, the State Department has called on all American citizens to leave Iraq immediately.
Perhaps for the first time in decades, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei personally attended an extraordinary session of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) held Friday morning, a national holiday in Iran, to explore various aspects of Soleimani’s death and decide on the scale and intensity of Tehran’s retaliation.
Not surprisingly, Khamenei immediately appointed Brigadier General Esmail Gha’ani, Soleimani’s deputy, as the new head of the IRGC-QF, suggesting the Revolutionary Guards’ resolve to persist with the same hybrid military strategy and defense doctrine as pursued under the slain commander.
Gha’ani officially assumed the position of deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in 2007 but had worked with Soleimani in various roles since 1997, when the latter was tasked by then IRGC commander-in-chief Yahya Rahim Safavi to lead the elite force.
In April 2019, the Trump administration added the IRGC—with an estimated 125,000-strong force—to the State Department’s notorious list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), marking for the first time the US designation of part of another sovereign state’s official military as a terrorist outfit.
The assassination “is unprecedented in the history of US relations with Iran since the revolution.”
The assassination “is unprecedented in the history of US relations with Iran since the revolution,” Gregory Brew, a historian of American-Iranian ties and author of the upcoming book Progress & Petroleum: Global Oil, Local Development, and the American Encounter with Iran, 1941-1965, told Inside Arabia. “There of course have been incidents and escalations, but nothing this brazen, at least from the US side. That the attack was carried out in Iraq would indicate that further escalation is likely to occur on Iraqi soil, though there’s also the possibility that Iran will choose to attack US allies in the Persian Gulf, as it did in September’s Abqaiq strikes on Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.”
Yet, the reverberations of Soleimani’s elimination are unlikely to remain limited to the Middle East proper. Demonstrations have already erupted in places as far as Kargil, an India-administered district in the disputed Kashmir territory, where Muslim supporters of the slain commander have taken to the streets to protest his assassination. Pakistani Shias have been a key source of recruitment for the Revolutionary Guards in its war effort to prop up the Assad government in Syria. The Pakistanis were organized and dispatched to the Syrian conflict zone under the “Liwa Zeinabiyyon” Brigade, along with Afghan Shia recruits under “Liwa Fatemiyyoun” Division.
The operation is also likely to fundamentally change Iran’s nuclear calculus and irredeemably kill European efforts to save the 2005 nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which the Trump administration scrapped in May 2018 before re-imposing comprehensive sanctions on the Iranian economy, thus setting in motion an escalatory chain of events and a spiral of tensions that can lead to all-out war.
Iran’s fifth nuclear countermeasure in reducing its JCPOA commitments, as announced by state officials, is due on January 5 to 6.
Tehran’s possible decision to abandon the JCPOA and take steps towards advanced nuclear work could add yet another dimension to the deteriorating situation and prompt American-Israeli military action to prevent what will likely be perceived as a “breakout” towards atomic weaponization.
A potential direct target of Iranian retaliation, Israel has opted for a lower profile in its reaction to Soleimani’s targeted killing as it stands accused of collaborating with the US military to carry out the historic operation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short his state visit to Greece and ordered his cabinet ministers to refrain from giving public interviews and statements on the development, signaling its non-involvement in the assassination and reluctance to be dragged in the ensuing conflagration.
The whole Middle East is on the verge of plunging into an expansive conflict, far more cataclysmic than the 2003 Iraq War.
The whole Middle East is on the verge of plunging into an expansive conflict, far more cataclysmic than the 2003 Iraq War, as regional capitals are watching with apprehension on what scale Tehran might retaliate. There is no question, however, that military reprisal is on the horizon. It is now a matter of when and how and not whether Iran will seek revenge.
“If and when Americans respond by targeting mainland Iran, the Islamic Republic will initially unleash an all-out war on any country where those attacks may originate and thus target US allies in the Persian Gulf,” Manzarpour noted.