Thembisa Fakude | Jan 4 2020
The most plausible reason why President Trump ordered the assassination of the Iranian General Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassem Soleimani is to shift attention from the ongoing impeachment process in the US media. Soleimani and the commander of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Iraq Abu Mahdi Muhandis were killed by a US airstrike in Iraq in the early hours of 03 January 2019. Soleimani was a senior member of Iranian government and a trusted member of the internal circle of the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was regarded the second most powerful person in Iran. The assassination of Soleimani is therefore undoubtedly a direct attack on Iran; it is tantamount to killing a “National Defense Minister of a country”. Iran has vowed to retaliate. Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini said in a statement “ his work and path will not cease, and severe revenge awaits those criminals who have tainted their filthy hands with his blood and the blood of the other martyrs,”.
The assassination of Soleimani comes at the time where there is widespread dissatisfaction about Iran’s involvement in domestic affairs of Iraq. In November 2019 Iraqi protestors torched Iranian consulates in Najaf and Karbala in response to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi politics. Furthermore, following weeks of protests Prime Minister of Iraq Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is regarded as close to Iran, was forced to resign at the beginning of December 2019. The political leadership inside Iraq, including Shia leadership in the country has since issued rather lukewarm statements following the assassination. Muqtada al Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shia clerics condemned the killing and called for the “protection of Iraq”. Muqtada’s statement has been interpreted as a “call not to import foreign feuds into Iraq”. The Grand Ayatollah of Iraq Ali al Sistani has called for a peaceful resolution of the current situation. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah on the other hand has said “meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide”. The unmatched statements by Shia leadership inside Iraq differ hugely to those of Iran and Hezbollah. The difference is indicative of intra-Shia political differences on Iran in the region. The question is to what extent has this difference emboldened Trump to carry the assassinations?
Iran has vowed harsh revenge. However, will Iran meet this rhetoric with action this time around? The geographical and logistical odds make it impossible for Iran to attack mainland US.. However Iran could target US’s installations, interests and citizens outside the US. Iran is most likely to use its proxies in the region and other parts of the world in this regard. Hezbollah is perhaps the most likely to act, judging by the statement the organisation issued following the assassination of Soleimani. However, Hezbollah will have to make careful political decision before acting. First, there are ongoing protests in Lebanon calling for economic reforms in the country, any action on US’s interests in the country and/or Israel for that matter could further exacerbate the economic situation. Simply put, Lebanese have no appetite and cannot afford another war at the moment. Therefore, notwithstanding what Hezbollah has said it is unlikely that it will directly respond on behalf of Iran this time around. Regarding the Houthis, another known Iranian proxy in the region, they are unlikely to do anything. The Houthis are in a process of negotiating a political truce and trying to normalize the situation in Yemen after years of devastating war in that country. They will certainly not be restarting another war with the US allies in the region. There are just too many pressing humanitarian and economic hardships that need immediate attention over avenging Iran. The reaction is most likely to be carried out by Iran itself inside Iraq. Iraq is the second largest oil producer in the world. Therefore Iran could disturb the global oil supply from Iraq. They could carry out attacks on key oil installations that could impact on oil prices and subsequently global economy. Iran could also look at soft US targets like embassies and US companies in the region. Regarding possible attack on Israel, it could be a worst decision for Iran. Attacking Israel could only benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is currently fighting for his political career. Therefore, overall Iran has very little retaliatory options which could commensurate an assassination of a figure like Soleimani, the inability to avenge the assassination of Soleimani could prove to be embarrassing for Iran.