The US assassination, on 3 January 2020, of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), greatly intensified tensions in the MENA region, taking it, by some accounts, to the brink of war. Iran responded five days later with attacks on American troops in Iraq, and will likely use its allies and proxies to undertake further attacks on US soldiers stationed in Iraq, thus maintaining a low-level war of attrition, less intense in the days after Soleimani’s assassination, but a longer-term strategy.
The assassination followed and intensified a series of incremental and escalating indirect attacks by Iran and the USA on each other’s interests in the MENA region, especially after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal), and more so after around March 2019, when Iran decided to respond more assertively to the US withdrawal. The USA subsequently accused Iran of increasing its support to armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and of being involved in the May 2019 Fujairah sabotage of four oil tankers, and an attackon Saudi Aramco facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise in September 2019. Both the tanker and the Aramco attacks were blamed on Iranian-backed groups. Contributing to a tense situation, The USA deployed a carrier strike-group to the gulf in May 2019, increased its troop presence in the region, and resolved to no longer grant oil wavers to countries purchasing Iranian oil.
However, neither Iran nor the USA wants an all-out war. Instead, the USA will continue pressuring Iran through current and further sanctions, while Tehran and its allies will conduct numerous low-level actions aimed at disrupting US operations and interests. Further, two of Iran’s main rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have stretched their resources over the Middle East and North Africa, and have realised that they cannot rely on the USA to fight their battles with Iran. Both have thus made overtures to Tehran, especially after the tanker and Aramco operations; Riyadh advocated de-escalation after Soleimani’s assassination, and is negotiating an end to the Yemeni conflict.
Roots of current tensions
Iran and the USA have had long-standing tensions, heightened after the US role in the coup against Iran’s democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. The ouster was supported, financially and diplomatically, by the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration. The Shah, whose powers were then strengthened, making him an absolute ruler, was subsequently propped up by successive US administrations through the 1960s and 1970s.
Relations between the two states further deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which forced the Shah out of power and into exile. He was granted asylum in the USA, prompting Iranian students to storm and besiege the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, holding US diplomats hostage for 444 days. The USA imposed an economic embargo on Iran, and US sanctions have progressively been strengthened over the past forty-one years. Washington also actively supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran, which sought to overthrow that country’s new government, and resulted in a million deaths.
In 2011, the USA, prodded by Israel, added sanctions on Iranian oil as a means of pressurising Iran to halt its nuclear programme. Since Donald Trump’s entry into the White House in 2016, relations between USA and Iran have mainly been related to or a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The American president hoped to pressure Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement with him, to also address its support for groups such as the Houthi and Hizbullah, and the Syrian regime, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile capability. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their economic clout, purchasing large quantities of American weapons, to convince Trump to maintain pressure on Iran. The Saudis successfully slowed down the initial JCPOA negotiations in 2013 by using its arms’ purchases to lobby France to demand more restrictions on Iran’s Arak reactor and on Tehran’s stockpile of uranium.
In 2018, after pulling out of the JCPOA, the USA began instituting new sanctions on Iranian companies, and, more significantly, decided not to issue new waivers on the import of Iranian oil, a key source of foreign exchange for Iran. These waivers previously allowed certain countries, such as Turkey, South Korea, Japan and India, to purchase Iranian oil. Then, in April 2019, Washington declared the IRGC a terrorist organisation, the first time the administration had labelled an entire military arm of another state in this way. Trump also deployed an additional 3 000 troops to the region, including an aircraft carrier and destroyer group. He imposed additional sanctions on Iran and Iranian officials, including on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and on its chief diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, severely limiting his ability to travel within New York.
With an economy ravaged by the sanctions, rebellion from hardliners within the regime, and because of the failures of the EU’s proposed special purpose financial vehicle, which was supposed to facilitate the circumvention of US sanctions, the Rouhani administration began to incrementally reduce its compliance with the JCPOA, hoping to pressure the EU to comply with its side of the agreement and to ease trade and investment with Iran. This series of violations is what Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi referred to as a ‘rebalancing’ of, rather than a withdrawal from, the JCPOA. Tehran will still allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect its uranium enrichment facilities, has not (yet) increased the level of enrichment to twenty per cent, and has not sought to repurpose the design of its Arak nuclear reactor to process plutonium. This suggests the country wants to salvage the JCPOA, but wants compliance form other partners, especially the EU.
The EU responded by declaring a dispute under the JCPOA. Little will result from this, since any decision on imposing sanctions on Iran will need to be adopted by the UNSC in which Russia and China, both Iranian allies, hold veto powers. A key factor in Iran’s favour is that it has not enriched uranium to twenty per cent – the level which would radically decrease the time and effort required to enrich to weapons-grade ninety per cent.
Tehran has deployed mobile short-range missiles on naval vessels in the Gulf, in Iranian waters, in response to Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier and destroyer group to the region. Iran also used its proxies, especially the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Forces/Units) in Iraq and the Houthi in Yemen to attack US troops and interests in the region, and in June 2019 Tehran shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone, one of only four the USA possessed at the time.
Soleimani assassination – on a knife edge
On 3 January 2020, the USA military assassinated Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the most influential leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), largely supported by Iran. The assassinations, widely recognised by international scholars – including the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnès Callamard – as being illegal under international law, and even domestic US law. The White House initially claimed the assassination was a pre-emptive strike because Soleimani had been planning ‘imminent attacks’ on US interests, including American embassies in the region. This claim proved to be hollow, with even the US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, stating that no evidence existed around the imminence and targets of the supposed plans.
Soleimani’s influence and popularity meant that the assassination was especially contentious for both Iran and the USA. He had been the key person involved in providing advice, training and weapons to Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, and coordinating between Iran and various PMF forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as with Hamas and Hizbullah. He was also revered by many Iranians who credited him with preventing the Islamic State group (IS) gaining a foothold in Iran. But he was also despised by many Syrians and Iraqis for his role in protecting regimes in their countries. Critics also blame him for Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, arguing that his July 2015 meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, secured Moscow’s aerial support for the Syrian regime, without which it might have fallen. In Iraq, Soleimani consolidated support in the past few months for the Adel Abdul Mahdi administration, which has been accused of corruption and ineptitude, and which has violently cracked down on protests, killing hundreds.
Soleimani had previously worked with the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former, Soleimani coordinated certain activities with the USA in the fight against the Taliban, which both viewed as an enemy. The ‘relationship’ broke down, however, after then-US president, George W Bush, named Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in 2002. Later, in Iraq, Soleimani was the point person dealing with the USA for Iran, including in discussions to form the Iraqi governing council, which took office in July 2003, and in 2009-10 to install the Nouri al-Maliki government.
After Soleimani’s assassination and funeral, which millions of Iranians and Iraqis participated in, Iran had to respond to the US aggression. Tehran decided on a two-pronged approach: a direct attack, in its name, on US troops, and a longer war of attrition with the USA through its partners and proxies. The direct response was through the attacks on the Ayn Al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, and on the Irbil base, which host US troops, using around twenty Fateh and Qaim ballistic missiles on the 8 January 2020. Before the attack, the Iranians stressed that they would target only US military interests. They also informed the Iraqis which bases would be targeted. The warning, coupled with the fact that Iran conveyed a message to the USA, first via a Swiss back channel and later publicly, that this was the totality of its response, suggests that Tehran sought immediate de-escalation. The ‘indirect’ responses began soon after, in Iraq, with rockets launched at bases hosting US troops and even a the American embassy, but ensuring there were no casualties. Such attacks will likely continue, in Iraq and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen, targeting either US interests or those of its allies.
Run-up to the assassination
Before Soleimani’s assassination, regional tensions had been increasing. On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway, were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah; two days later, Houthi drones damaged Saudi Arabia’s reserve oil pipeline in Riyadh province, forcing its closure. While no one claimed responsibility for the tanker attacks, the Norwegian insurer alleged that the shrapnel from the explosions displays similarities to shrapnel from IEDs used by Houthi fighters in Yemen. Further, a Saudi-UAE-Norwegian investigation alleged ‘state involvement’ in the sabotage.
A month later, Iran shot down an American drone that had entered its airspace. Trump initially contemplated retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian missile defence systems, but later stood down. Then, in September 2019, precision drone and missile attacks on Saudi-Aramco oil facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise forced a shutdown of over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity, resulting in a loss of over two billion dollars. Although Yemen’s Houthi claimed the attack, a UN report suggests that the missiles originated from the north, likely from Iraq.
The USA and Israel responded by increasing attacks on Iranian troops in Syria, killing scores of people. US strikes were more limited than Israel’s, commencing in December 2019 after the death of an American contractor in a PMF attack on a military base in Iraq. Israel was more blatant, continually violating Lebanese and Syrian airspace, and launching missiles at Iranian assets in Syria. The USA also increased its troop deployment to the region, and dispatched more naval hardware to the Gulf.
Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, shocked by what they saw as a lack of an adequate response by the USA to the tanker and Aramco attacks, and believing they could no longer rely on the USA for protection, responded through attempts at rapprochement with Iran. Riyadh sought to initiate indirect talks with Iran, having Iraq and Pakistan simultaneously acting as mediators. The UAE also sought to negotiate with Iran. In August 2019, in the aftermath of the Fujairah attack, a maritime border agreement was concluded between the UAE and Iran, regarding Abu Dhabi’s access to sea lanes. It is worth noting that the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the largest in the region, while DP World, an Emirati port operator is the fourth largest globally. Abu Dhabi is thus invested in maintaining and enhancing sea lane access as a means of both economic growth and military influence.
In September 2019, Riyadh entered direct talks with the Houthi; Saudi coalition airstrikes in Yemen decreased by over eighty per cent in November 2019; and hundreds of prisoners, including around 130 in besieged Taiz, were exchanged between the two parties as a confidence-building measure. Further, the perceived lack of American support also saw Saudi Arabia commence negotiations to end the Qatar blockade, which Riyadh – along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed in 2017. Although differences still remain, the blockade has weakened at a diplomatic level with the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini teams attending the Gulf Cup in Qatar in November 2019, and Qatar’s prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, attending the annual GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia in December 2019. A ‘cold peace’ between the two sides is likely soon to emerge.
It seems that both the USA and Iran, and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, do not want an all-out confrontation, especially since Iran possesses powerful military assets that can cause real damage, and Iran seems willing to use these. Saudi Arabia called for calm after Soleimani’s assassination, while Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shortened his trip to Greece and returned to Israel in an attempt to prepare for any Iranian response. Further, both the Iranian and American governments have cautioned against a war, even though Soleimani’s assassination had the potential to cause events to spiral out of control.
With 2020 being a presidential election year in the USA, Trump is unlikely to want a war (especially one that could result in a large number of American casualties) when a key promise of his 2016 campaign was to halt America’s wars and remove American troops from the Middle East. Even though he has not succeeded in this regard, Trump would not want the negative publicity that another war would bring, unless his popularity rapidly drops and he requires something to create a rally-around-the-flag effect.
For the moment, it seems as if Iraq will bear the brunt of these tensions, serving as a key battleground between the USA and Iran, especially since it is dependent on both countries, and because it is seen by Tehran as falling within its sphere of influence. Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq, and Iran’s response was to target American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi protests over unemployment, corruption and for a restructuring of the political system have thus been overshadowed. The protests, which saw tens of thousands gather in December 2019 in opposition to the government, waned after the US attacks on PMF forces in Iraq in late December. More recently, the larger protests have been those calling for US troops to leave, rather than the earlier ones which called for Iranian influence in Iraq to be decreased.