- Major General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander was killed in a US strike near Baghdad International airport.
- One of the most popular figures in Iran, Soleimani was known as the most powerful general in the Middle East and has been repeatedly touted as a possible presidential candidate.
- He was the long-serving head of Iran’s Quds (‘Jerusalem’) Force and has been seen as a deadly adversary by America and its allies.
Clouds of Wars
- The US and Iran have already been in confrontation for over a week, with each attack leading to a counterattack.
- On December 27, more than 30 rockets were launched at an Iraqi military base, killing an American contractor.
- The US responded on December 29 with airstrikes on sites in Iraq and Syria, killing 24 members of an Iranian-backed militia.
- On December 31 pro-Iranian militia members laid siege to the US Embassy in Baghdad, trapping American diplomats for more than 24 hours. Then came the US drone strike that killed Soleimani and others.
Who was Soleimani?
- Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani hails from a village in the mountains of Kerman Province, a region in Iran’s southeast, not far from the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- Revered in his home country and feared on battlefields across the Middle East, Soleimani remains virtually unknown in the West.
The Quds Force
- Until his death, Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, which is the Arabic word for Jerusalem and is responsible for carrying out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities.
- The force is responsible for training, financing and providing assistance to some extremist groups overseas.
- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set up the IRGC in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution ended to protect the Islamic order of the new Iranian government.
- According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the IRGC has contributed roughly 125,000 men to Iran’s forces and has the capability of undertaking asymmetric warfare and covert operations.
- This includes the Quds Force that over the years has established links with the Hezbollah of Lebanon, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Shi’ites in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
What did the Quds Force do?
- In 1982, Revolutionary Guard officers were sent to Lebanon to help organise Shia militias in the civil war, which eventually led to the creation of Hezbollah.
- The IRGC including the Quds Force has contributed roughly 125,000 men to Iran’s forces and has the capability of undertaking asymmetric warfare and covert operations.
- As Quds head, Soleimani briefly worked in cooperation with the US. This was during the US crackdown in Afghanistan following 9/11; Soleimani wanted the Taliban defeated.
- The cooperation ended in 2002 after President George W Bush branded Iran a nuclear proliferator an exporter of terrorism, and part of an “Axis of Evil”.
- By 2003, the US was accusing Soleimani of plotting attacks on US soldiers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which eventually toppled Saddam Hussein.
- And in 2011, the Treasury Department placed him on a sanctions blacklist.
- In recent years, Soleimani was believed to be the chief strategist behind Iran’s military ventures and influence in Syria, Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
In popular support
- In recent years, Soleimani has gained a huge following on Instagram.
- His profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013 appearing in battlefield photos, documentaries — and even being featured in a music video and animated film.
- Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
- Soleimani wielded his regional clout publicly since 2018 when it was revealed that he had direct involvement in top-level talks over the formation of Iraq’s government.
- He has been in and out of Baghdad ever since, most recently last month as parties seeking to form a new government.
Why he was killed?
- The US accused Iranian general is actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.
- The Pentagon said that Gen Soleimani and his Quds Force “were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”.
- The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of which Soleimani’s Quds Force was the overseas operations arm and was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO).
- The regime in Tehran is responsible for the deaths of at least 603 American service members in Iraq since 2003.
- This according to the US accounts for 17% of all deaths of US personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies.
According to the US, the Quds Force was involved in:
- # 2011: The Quds Force plotted a terrorist attack against the Saudi Ambassador to the US on American soil.
- # September 2018: A US federal court found Iran and the IRGC liable for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing which killed 19 Americans.
- # Support to terror organisations: Iran funds, equips, and fuels terrorism, violence, and unrest across the Middle East and around the world.
- # Support to al-Qaeda: The US alleges that Iran allows al-Qaeda operatives to live in the country, and “move money and fighters to South Asia and Syria”.
- The US designated Iran a State Sponsor of Terrorism in January 1984.
- Ever since, Iran has been subjected to a number of sanctions and restrictions, including restrictions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports and sales, exports controls of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
Implications of the killing
- Soleimani’s death has resulted in a dramatic escalation in relations between the US and Iran. The strike has left the Middle East on edge, with possible repercussions beyond the region.
- President Rouhani said the killing would make Iran more decisive in resisting the US, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-US forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.
- Israel, too, was preparing for Iranian strikes.
- The killing could have a ripple effect in any number of countries across the Middle East where Iran and the US compete for influence. Oil prices have already jumped by $3 a barrel.
Possibility of retaliation
- The killing forced Iran’s hand, and Tehran immediately warned of retaliation. Each strike has led to a more severe retaliation.
- Also, by clearing the killing of Soleimani, Donald has taken a step his predecessors had avoided.
- But analysts believe Iran will also be conscious that it is more vulnerable than the US, with all the conflict likely to be in the Middle East itself, including within Iran.
- That said Iran’s military capabilities are higher than those of others in its neighbourhood.
- The US might be wary of that. At the same time, analysts believe Iran would require time to put together a working nuclear warhead.
- That possibility would end if the US chooses to strike Iran’s nuclear installations.
Can it be war?
- A lot will depend on how provocative Iran’s inevitable retaliation turns out to be.
- If these provoke the US into a direct strike on Iran, it can potentially open up the threat of a sustained war.
- While the possibility of an unintended slide to war is impossible to rule out, fears of World War Three —a phrase that trended overnight on social media are overblown.
Repercussions on India
Delay of Chabahar
- The killing is expected to slow down India’s plans to develop the Chabahar port that New Delhi first spoke of turning into a gateway to access landlocked Central Asia and Afghanistan.
- The 2015 Iran nuclear deal gave India a chance to revisit its plans to develop Chabahar port, also seen as a strategic counter to Pakistan’s Gwadar port developed by China.
- US sanctions on Iran for its suspect nuclear programme and India’s aim to clinch a civil nuclear deal with the US had delayed plans to develop the Chabahar port in the intervening years since 2003.
- In May 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a transport and transit corridor pact as well as a bilateral pact with Tehran to develop the Chabahar port and lay a railway line to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Oil prices hike
- India’s immediate concern is the impact of tensions on international fuel prices that soared 4% last week.
- Brent crude futures jumped nearly $3 to hit a high of $69.16 a barrel the highest since September while the U.S.
- With India’s GDP growing at a record low of 4.5% in the September quarter, there are serious concerns that high fuel prices could adversely impact its economic recovery.
- Though India does not import oil from Iran thanks to a new set of sanctions but any unrest in the volatile region could impact imports from countries like Saudi Arabia.
Impact on trade
- Most of the exports take place through the Straits of Hormuz a narrow waterway carrying a fifth of the world’s traded oil which Iranian officials had threatened to block in retaliation for sanctions.
- India had deployed naval assets in the region to protect its supplies in the wake of mine attacks on oil tankers.
- A secondary worry is that tensions between Iran and the US could impact India’s trade with the region that now stands at $ 78 billion (from Gulf Cooperation Council member countries ie Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman).
- The West Asia region is the source of some $200 billion in terms of remittances, trade and investments for India.
- Overall, India will view the U.S.-Iran developments with deep concern and hope that the situation does not escalate.
- Beyond its short-term anxiety about India will have a medium-to-long-term concern about further deterioration — namely, that it will result in continued, if not greater, U.S. involvement in the Middle East at the expense of the Indo-Pacific.
- India wants US focused on the China challenge and it has hoped for years that the U.S. would indeed undertake a rebalance.
- Any escalation between the U.S. and Iran would put paid to any such shift; moreover, as India saw with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it could increase China’s space.