In a new and sudden escalation by the United States in its campaign against Iran, involving a high level of risk and aggravating existing tensions in the region which have been gathering since consecutive Iranian attacks threatened maritime navigation security in the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea, Washington targeted General Qassem Soleimani along with senior leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on January 3, 2020, at 1:30 a.m. The deputy head of the PMF Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed, a prominent pro-Iran figure in Iraq. He had come to the airport in Baghdad to receive Soleimani who had flown in from Damascus. The attack on the convoy of Soleimani and Muhandis was carried out by Hellfire R9X missiles. The attack occurred a few minutes after they had left Baghdad International Airport. The two vehicles in the convoy were completely destroyed.
I- The Direct Motives Behind the US Strike
The US strike came in direct response to the escalation by Iranian proxies in Iraq (PMF militias), including the Hezbollah Brigades, against US forces. On December 27, 2019, armed Shiite militias shelled the K-1 US-Iraqi military base with nearly 30 rockets. Located north of Kirkuk, this base hosts US soldiers at the official invitation of the Iraqi government as part of the International Coalition to fight ISIS. A US civilian contractor was killed in the attack and four US servicemen as well as two Iraqi security personnel were injured. The death of the American contractor was the motive behind the sudden US response. It was a strategic blunder by Iran in the context of timing, given the fact that Trump is very close to the US presidential elections.
Only two days after the attack carried out by the Iraqi Shiite militias on the US base, on December 29, 2019, the US army responded to Trump’s directive. Using F-15 fighters, the US carried out reprisal attacks by bombing five facilities, bases and arms depots affiliated with Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades, which is one of the pro-Iran PMF factions. Three facilities were bombed in Iraq’s Qaim city in Anbar province near the Iraqi-Syrian border and two facilities were hit in Syria on the border triangle with Iraq. The attack killed nearly 28 fighters, including the Hezbollah leader, the commander of the first regiment in the 45th Brigade, Abu Ali al-Khazali, who was one of the closest figures to Qassem Soleimani, and 48 other PMF affiliates were wounded.
Then Iran ordered its proxies, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, to besiege the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on December 31, 2019, which led to the destruction of the embassy’s wall. Its main gates, towers, and security cameras were set on fire and windows were smashed. The protesters decided to hold a sit-in and demanded US forces pull out from Iraq before PMF leaders urged them to swiftly withdraw from the vicinity of the US embassy on the request of the Iraqi government.
Intelligence reports indicated that the swift dispersal of the protesters around the US embassy came following a phone call from Trump to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Trump threatened that storming the US embassy would result in grave consequences.
Afterward, Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the attack on the US embassy, holding it fully responsible. He asserted that the United States will adopt a strategy of preemptive strikes in order to abort Iranian plans to kill Americans in Iraq.
With US elections quickly approaching this year, the Iranian bet was on striking US bases with the aim of putting President Trump in an awkward situation, as his administration would be reluctant in undertaking any hasty escalatory measure against Tehran which could jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances. In the event of harsh reprisals by the United States, Iran planned to use this as a means to quell the anti-Iran protests in Iraq. This was a miscalculation by Iran. The US civilian contractor killed by a pro-Iranian militia shifted US public opinion, with approval for retaliatory action against Iran. This was used by the Trump administration to justify Washington’s escalation against Iran, especially since Trump does not have much time to procrastinate as the Democrats have passed a bill triggering an impeachment inquiry. Therefore, the US response was sudden and strong by assassinating the mastermind of the Iranian regional project. The table below highlights the timeline and incidents leading to the attack as well as some responses in the aftermath:
II- The Significance of the Timing of Qassem Soleimani’s Assassination by the US
There are many reasons why the United States would want to assassinate Qassem Soleimani. He was the main architect of the Iranian expansionist project in the region, masterminded terrorist operations, symbolized Iranian transboundary expansionism, sponsored terrorist armed militias in Arab countries and fomented regional tensions in order to create conducive conditions for Iran’s domination of the region. But the timing of his assassination is extremely significant. The US administration announced its maximum pressure strategy one and a half years ago, aiming to push the Iranian government to change its behavior. Previously, the United States did not respond to many of Iran’s provocative acts which posed a threat to regional countries, maritime navigation security, and oil export routes. It also did not respond when Iran downed a US drone. So why is there a sudden shift in the US position, and why was Soleimani killed at the time when Trump is preparing for the US presidential elections? There are several reasons behind the US killing of Soleimani.
- Aborting an Iranian Plan to Deal a Deadly Blow to Trump
It seems that the CIA had obtained information which indicated that Soleimani was hatching a dangerous plot to attack US diplomats and troops in Iraq, with the aim of putting Trump in an awkward situation as US elections approach. The Iranians hoped that this would damage his reputation in the eyes of the US public and his reelection chances, with his approval ratings dropping leading up to the 2020 presidential elections. The remarks made by President Trump on January 3, 2020, after the assassination of Soleimani echoed the information provided to the White House by the CIA. He said, “the US has killed Soleimani in order to end the war, not to start it.” This is in addition to the remarks by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said, “By killing Soleimani, we have aborted an imminent Iranian attack,” adding that Soleimani was plotting a major attack that threatened the lives of hundreds of Americans. The same justification was provided by Brian Hook, the US special envoy for Iran, who said that US intelligence tracked phone calls suggesting that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on US soldiers, interests and diplomats and planning to kill more Americans.
Also, perhaps the US administration realized that Soleimani was planning to kick President Trump out of the White House by creating strong US public opinion against Trump which would impact his chances for reelection. For example, if Iran, killed the US ambassador along with US diplomats in Iraq reminiscent of the killing of the US ambassador to Libya in 2012, US public opinion would turn against Trump and damage his reelection chances.
Trump would not allow this to happen, particularly as he heads into the US presidential race. Therefore, in order to avert this Iranian plan, which if successful, would cause a complete shift in US policy towards Iran by bringing in a new president who could reverse the sanctions and reshape US policy towards Iran, Trump, from among several options laid out before him by his inner circle of advisers, opted to kill Qassem Soleimani.
2- A Propaganda Strategy Aimed to Boost President Trump’s Electoral Gains
Perhaps Soleimani’s assassination is related to Trump’s desire to strengthen his reelection chances by taking advantage of Iran’s miscalculation especially since Trump’s popularity has declined due to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives vote just days before the end of 2019 to impeach him. The Iranian miscalculation gave Trump a historic opportunity at this phase through which he can achieve several goals, on top of which is exploiting US public opinion in the aftermath of the killing of a US civilian contractor in Iraq to justify the assassination of Soleimani. This will be used to support Trump’s latest electoral pledge to protect the lives of American citizens wherever they are, which will bolster his approval ratings for the upcoming US presidential elections. This is in addition to Trump’s policies which have resulted in improved economic indicators at home, which will also contribute to enhancing his chances for reelection in 2020. However, curbing Iran and preventing it from repeating attacks on more Americans in the future and sending a message to the Iranians that attacking US bases, targets and interests in Iraq and across the region is considered a breach of the redlines set by the United States, which will force Iran to reconsider its plans to strike US targets is a significant electoral boost for Trump.
3- US Awareness That Iraq is Unable to Provide the Required Protection for US Targets
Iraq is going through a period of security, political and economic turmoil due to the outbreak of mass protests against the Iraqi government. Protesters have demanded that early elections be held, corruption and unemployment crises cutting across the Iraqi state apparatuses be tackled and, more importantly, Iran and its militias be expelled from Iraq. This is in addition to the failure to name a new prime minister in place of the outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi because Iran insists on naming a prime minister who is loyal to Iran and who acts in accordance with its agenda. Furthermore, the resignation of Iraqi President Barham Salih is viewed as a sign of solidarity with the protesters who rejected the nomination of Assad Al Eidani as prime minister, who is affiliated with the al-Binaa Alliance which is backed by Iran. Therefore, according to the US perception, Iraq in such circumstances, will not be capable of providing the required protection for US interests, bases, and forces.
4-The Possibility of Transforming US Strategy
The United States’ motive behind carrying out the assassination at this time was perhaps influenced by the strategic conclusion that due to repeated Iranian acts of provocation, and targeting US interests and bases directly, that Washington should define its role as a power dominating the monopolar world order. This is achieved by moving from deterrence via a negotiation strategy to deterrence via the use of force and direct retaliatory attacks. The proof of this is the United States’ use of drones in assassinating the most influential figures and ringleaders of Iran’s expansionist project across several Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. This is further illustrated by the Pentagon’s deployment, on January 1, 2019, of 750 marines to protect the US embassy in Baghdad and the deployment of an additional 500 soldiers to Kuwait to deter possible strikes by militias against the US embassy in Kuwait as well as the Pentagon’s approval, on 4 January 2020, to send 3,000 additional troops to the Middle East. This comes as the United States possesses more than 50 military bases encircling Iran, as well as jet carriers, military bases, and sophisticated equipment in the Gulf region. This is added to Trump’s statement that he will hit 52 targets inside Iran if US forces are attacked.
Insomuch as the assassinations of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis reveal the level of US military capabilities, its ability to respond, and its preparedness to face up to the dangerous threats and that the post-Soleimani era is totally different from the era that preceded it, the assassinations reveal, in the same proportion, the threats to the security of the region, bringing it closer to the brink of war. Many of those possessing the voice of reason in the region seek to prevent this outcome, regardless of the level of Iranian provocations or the attacks by its proxy militias. The core essence of the US maximum pressure strategy is forcing Iran to change its behavior, not to drag the entire region into wars that destroy the peoples’ resources. We still believe that the best option is to continue an approach based on proportionate responses. Escalation is not in favor of the international community, including Iran and the region’s countries.
All parties should practice self-restraint and not be deluded into imagining that problems could be resolved by opening fire or hiding behind militias. The Middle East is still bearing the brunt of wars which it entered into in the 1990s and the 2000s, and it is not ready for the fueling of further tensions at this time.