3rd January 2020
Qasem Soleimani – assassinated by US airstrike
The assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, on the order of US President Donald Trump, marks a massive escalation in the undeclared war on Iran, which has been waged virtually from the moment Trump took office.
Soleimani was killed by an air strike on Baghdad airport early on Friday. As the leader of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Soleimani was widely regarded as second only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the pecking order in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy.
Khamenei has said that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack and three days of national mourning have been announced. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has called the attack an “act of international terrorism”, going on to say that,
“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Condemnation has come from Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who described the killing as a “dangerous escalation” and from Russia where Vladimir Putin warned that the assassination would “seriously aggravate the situation in the region”.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated that the strike was “lawful” and that it “saved lives”.
In the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, issued the following statement,
“The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani is an extremely serious and dangerous escalation of conflict with global significance. We urge restraint on the part of both Iran and the US and we call for an end to the belligerent actions and rhetoric coming from the US.”
The Stop the War Coalition have called a protest outside Downing Street for Saturday, 4th January at 2pm.
In the wider context of the ongoing interventionist war against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the fact that the United States has moved 14,000 additional troops to the Gulf region in the past year, there is every potential for wider conflagration.
A wave of protest has been sweeping the Middle East in recent months, with demonstrations against unpopular regimes unfolding in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon. The protests have resistance to government corruption, mass unemployment and plunging living standards in common. All three regimes have reacted with increased violence and repression.
In Iraq at least 400 people are reported to have died since protesters took to the streets in early October. Amnesty International estimate that at least 208 people have died in nationwide protests in Iran since protests erupted in October. The true figure could be much higher. Protests against new taxes in Lebanon brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and forced the resignation of Prime Minister, Saad Hariri.
While the protests across the region have been the result of internal repression and government incompetence, key players have been maximising their efforts to link the protests to wider regional tensions. The Intelligence Ministry in Tehran for example claimed to have arrested eight “CIA operatives” accused of inciting riots.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) chief commander, General Hossein Salami, suggested that the riots were conducted by “thugs” with the backing of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Salami went on to link the protests to the US policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, following the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year. Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has talked of a “dangerous conspiracy” implicating the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The US, on the other hand, has characterised the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as part of a region wide insurgency against Iranian power.
At least 7,000 people have reportedly been arrested in 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces since mass protests broke out on 15th November, prompting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to state that she is “extremely concerned about their physical treatment, violations of their right to due process, and the possibility that a significant number of them may be charged with offences that carry the death penalty, in addition to the conditions under which they are held.”
While protests continue to sweep Iran, underlining the unpopularity of the Islamic Republic, the regime continues to try and bolster its position and circumvent US sanctions. Excluded from the US international interbank payment system, SWIFT, Tehran is looking to link with alternative systems in China and Russia.
Oil sales continue, primarily to Syria and China in order to generate income for the regime, prompting Khamenei to state recently that,
“The US policy of maximum pressure has failed. The Americans presumed that they can force Iran to make concessions and bring it to its knees by focussing on maximum pressure, especially in the area of economy, but they have troubled themselves.”
In countering the US “maximum pressure” approach Iran has upped the ante by participating in joint naval drills with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean in late December.
However, the assassination of Soleimani gives the whole “maximum pressure” policy a dangerous new twist.
The danger of external intervention in Iran is one which has been in the wings for some years. With the Iranian regime itself increasingly under pressure the possibility of a major strike, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from its domestic problems, should not be ruled out. Soleimani’s assassination may just give the clergy in Iran the excuse they need. Such an outcome would be disastrous, not only for the region, but for world peace.
Trump may have ordered the killing of Soleimani in order to look tough at home in an election year but there is every danger that, this time, the international consequences may far outweigh any perceived domestic benefits.