Is the death of Iran’s Soleimani a game changer for the Middle East?

Tallha Abdulrazaq

The Iranian general was the key figure in stretching Tehran’s influence across the Middle East. His death will be a bitter blow for the country’s regional ambitions. As the sun set over the Middle East yesterday evening, no one could have guessed that by the time it rose again, the entire political and security landscape of the region would be completely altered.

As if the events of New Year’s Eve and the siege of the US embassy in Baghdad were not monumental enough to close off last year, the slaying of the Iranian Quds Force commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, in an American strike in Baghdad was an absolutely seismic way to start the new year.

Trump is stamping US authority: As argued elsewhere, the attack on the US embassy by pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militants was a slap in the face of the American self-perception of being a force to be reckoned with. While US President Donald Trump took immediate action to prevent the embassy situation from degenerating into a rehash of the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, the world was watching to see how Washington would retaliate to any further provocations.

The answer to that question came in bloody fashion overnight, as a suspected US drone attacked a convoy of at least two vehicles travelling from Baghdad International Airport, killing Soleimani and other senior Iraqi and Lebanese militants.  Among the dead were senior Popular Mobilisation Forces officers, including US designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as well as six others.

The strike was seemingly ordered after katyusha rockets commonly used by Iran-backed militias struck US and Coalition facilities within the airport, yet the timing and the targeting of the American retaliation suggests it was premeditated. Indeed, the Pentagon issued a statement confirming that the strike had taken place at the order of President Trump.

But this attack is not your run-of-the-mill attack. Soleimani is one of Iran’s most decorated military commanders and the architect of its modern empire. The fact that he has just been killed by the United States is a terrible blow to Iranian morale and will make its proxies and allies fearful of what may happen to them should Washington decide to exercise its considerable military might. Soleimani is irreplaceable and his loss will mean that Iran will have to retaliate or else risk looking weak and losing credibility.  Trump has managed to arguably kill two of the most destabilising men in the entire region within the space of a few months, starting first with Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and now claiming Soleimani’s scalp to cem-ent his reputation as a staunch defender of American interests and power. It seems obvious that the American president wants nothing more than to re-establish American deterrence capability and show that, if pushed, he will go to very extreme lengths to secure his nation’s interests and to stamp its authority on an increasingly multipolar world.

Reports are now also indicating that former Iraqi cabinet minister and current Badr Brigade commander, Hadi al-Amiri, has been arrested in the middle of Baghdad by American forces. He was taken alongside the leader of the Asaib Ahl ul-Haq (AAH) militia, Qais al-Khazali, who is also a US designated terrorist. All of these men were in attendance at the siege of the US embassy with the exception of Soleimani who was most likely the mastermind behind the entire show of force. It would therefore appear that the White House intends on dealing a royal flush, taking out all of Iran’s top made men in Iraq in one fell swoop.

Iran got too comfortable provoking the US: The reason why events have escalated to this extent seem to be obvious. Under a succession of American administrations, Iran has enjoyed almost total freedom of action. Under President George W. Bush, the Iranians managed to insert their proxies into the Iraqi political process from the get-go, with a succession of virulently sectarian prime ministers perhaps best exemplified by Nouri al-Maliki. During the administration of Barack Obama, the United States shifted from tolerating malignant Iranian actions to outright supporting them by providing close air support to its proxies, including the PMF, and doing nothing about its expansionism in Syria.

Even under Trump, the United States has shown that it wanted to avoid conflict. Not only did it seem that the Iranians could get away with striking at American interests inside Iraq, but Iran has also previously felt emboldened to attack regional US allies such as Saudi Arabia as in last summer’s oil facility bombings. Each time, Tehran and its proxies got away with it, and senior IRGC operatives were walking around in the open.

However, it seems that the damage to American prestige when IRGC-backed militants attacked the US embassy earlier this week was a step too far and demanded a decisive response from the White House. The audacity of the Iranian move was too much for the Americans to stomach anymore, likely contributing to the Trump administration’s decision to change the rules of engagement and to strike at more senior targets.

The loss of Soleimani will be painful for the Iranian regime, but a cause of celebration to many in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, where the Iranian commander presided over militias accused of human rights abuses and sectarian violence.

Now, though, the Iranians will never again be as self-assured as they have been over the past 16 years. The United States has re-announced itself back onto the world stage in a big way, and other powers will be taking note that the US will strike hard if it feels it is being undermined.

The ball is now very much in Iran’s court, and it is unlikely that it will stay silent in the face of one of its most senior commanders being bombed in a foreign country. In response to the embassy attack, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted there was nothing that Trump could do about it. However, it is now apparent that there is very little Khamenei can do to avenge the death of his most effective operative and to re-establish his country’s standing.