Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar)
Former Military Secretary & GCTC Advisory Board Member
Iran is not known to be as irrational as President Trump. It tends to think things through although it also takes calculated risk. The immediately preceding set of events before the assassination of Qasem Soleimani does not confirm that belief. It’s because the risk at a time when President Trump was domestically politically cornered was perhaps beyond calculation. There is no doubt that Iran is seeking to consolidate its hold over Iraq after the defeat of ISIS; the control over the Levant is almost complete except the awkward noise emanating from Turkey’s ambitions against the Kurds on the Syrian-Turkey border zone. It has the Saudis under intense pressure in Yemen. Iran has also displayed its irritant potential in regional sea waters by detaining foreign tankers and getting away with it. However, the one area where competition for influence remains stiff is the demographically complex Iraq. There the US remains in contention and will not yield space. The Iraqi Shia militias owe allegiance to Iran but also many of them do not wish to see any foreign forces within. In the last few months, after the defeat of ISIS the space for strategic influence through proxies shifted to Southern Iraq. Iran perhaps overplayed its hand commencing with the drone attack on the Aramco oil facility in neighboring Saudi Arabia which paralyzed half of Saudi oil production facility for some time. The second mistake was the attack on the Iraqi airbase at Kirkuk hosting Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces on 27 December 2019, which left an American civilian contractor dead. It probably had no control over the events that followed, involving the attack on the US Embassy by Iraqi militiamen. Perhaps the necessity of displaying its muscle power in Iraq was perceived as necessary to obtain a psychological and tactical advantage against the US; hence the surge in activities. A sliver of over confidence and a dash of hurry appeared to have afflicted Qasem Soleimani after the US bombing of Kata’ib Hezbollah’s (the Iraqi component of Hezbollah) weapons depots and command centers in Iraq and Syria on 31 Dec 2019. Perhaps he wished to avenge that in a hurry.
The immediate and long term impact of his absence from the strategic scene of the Middle East is going to be the dilution of control over proxies and militias, the cornerstone of Iran’s core strategy. It is for this reason that Iran will probably think deep before executing any operation for the retribution that the surging nationalism demands. It is not as if Iran does not have commanders of stature within the IRGC. Yet, when a certain commander, especially of a force involved in clandestine strategic operations, adopts a much larger than life image the level of confidence in his replacement takes time to sink in. Soleimani was in charge of the Quds Force since as far back as 1998. Even if retribution is being planned, as expected, it is unlikely that Iraq will be the scene of it. This is especially so because of the repeated desire expressed by Iraqi leaders to see Iraqi soil free of proxy conflict and the public demanding the same. Public will and demand cannot be soft pedaled. Brig Gen Hossein Dehghan, the military advisor to Iran’s supreme leader has been cautious in signaling that the Iranian response will be military and against military bases. It is unlikely to involve missile attacks from Iranian soil because that would lay Iran open to much more than it can handle. Calibration in this case will have to be balanced otherwise a catastrophic escalatory spiral will be set in motion sucking the entire Middle East in its wake.
The second major effect of the assassination is the likely lease of life that the rump ISIS elements will probably get in Iraq and Syria. It should be known that the defeat of the ISIS in conventional strongholds was very largely the handiwork of Iraqi militias and the Iraqi Army; the former trained and equipped by IRGC and the latter by the US. It was one of those rare occasions where the US and Iran were ranged on the same side and its effect was very much visible. Although ISIS is defeated it is not yet out of reckoning as it exists in networked form with many of its cadres in hiding. The Quds Force with its hands on local experience and networks is by far the best organization to terminate ISIS presence in any form in the Middle East. Now with a swing in its priority and absence of the experience of Soleimani its effectiveness is going to be questionable, at least for some time. Hopefully Russian presence alongside the Iranian strategic forces will help to retain focus against the ISIS and prevent its resurgence.
There will be a temptation on the part of Iran to target Israel as indirect retribution. In anticipation Israel has already placed its forces on full alert. It would work to US advantage if its resources escape targeting. There is a high degree of disapproval for President Trump’s action, even among Republican supporters in the US. The popular perception is that by this action the President has placed lives of US troops and diplomats in greater danger without any commensurate gains. An attack on Israel and its assets would transfer the onus of further escalatory response to Israel’s lap. If Iran has to adopt this strategy the ready availability of Hezbollah and the plethora of missiles under its control in the Levant would probably form the basis of its actions. The US, however, may not be able to stand aside as an observer. A much larger escalation is almost guaranteed in most contingencies. Trump’s threat of targeting 52 cultural sites of the Iranian civilization is an unusual and unheard of threat especially coming from the world’s most advanced country with huge stakes in morals and ethics of war. Trump himself often states that America’s battle is with the regime and not with the people. Through sanctions the US has mostly targeted the people and now with this threat it is again the people, their heritage and their civilizational symbols. The US Armed Forces have displayed immense courage in targeting unethical practices within, during peace and war but this is an unheard of measure in the realm of organized warfare. How will they react to it?
Not for long have witnessed an occasion when the targeting of a single personality has left a crucial part of the world open to an indeterminate and complex spiral of escalation. It is almost comparable to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie on 28 June 1914 which triggered the First World War. Hopefully better sense will prevail and Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani will not go down in history as the man whose assassination provoked a similarly catastrophe for the world.