Death of Soleimani only strengthens Iran's hand in Iraq and the region

BASHDAR PUSHO ISMAEEL
Published 11.01.2020 01:56

The U.S. assassination of prominent Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone attack in Baghdad last Friday pushed U.S.-Iranian relations to new historical lows. Though more fuel for in the already tense standoff in the Middle East between the two long-time nemeses was unnecessary, the decision ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump has now ushered in a deadly new era.

Far from saving lives and spurning imminent threats that the White House has alluded to, the death of Soleimani, widely regarded as the second-most powerful man in Iran, is likely to lead to widespread revenge attacks and a hardened Iranian stance.

Indeed, at the time of writing, Iran has already attacked two U.S. military bases in Iraq with over a dozen ballistic missiles, threatening to escalate retaliation from both sides.

It also places Iraq, already suffering from large-scale protests, socials upheaval and political division, in a difficult position between Washington and Tehran.

Since Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, Baghdad has been caught between the U.S. and an increasingly influential Iranian grip on its domestic affairs. As a result, Iraq has long been a battleground for the U.S. and Iranian-backed militia forces.

With the death of Soleimani, Iran will only intensify its dominance in Iraq and work tirelessly to ensure that the U.S. leaves Iraq. It's no coincidence that the Iraqi parliament quickly voted on a nonbinding agreement to expel U.S. forces from Iraq.

While many anti-Iranian voices remain in Iraq, the pro-Iranian political factions and militias have much larger sway and this will only grow in the months to come. Far from a pro-Western democracy that the U.S. painstakingly worked toward, spending trillions of dollars along the way, Baghdad is been driven ever deeper into the hands of Washington's archenemy.

The death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Iraq's Kataeb Hezbollah militia group in Iraq, who was in the same convoy as Soleimani, only adds to the probability of a violent showdown between Iraqi militias and U.S. forces.

Soleimani played a strong and influential role in defending and promoting Iranian interests in the region. After years of operations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, he developed a strong network of allies and a logistical footprint.

While Soleimani was a key figure, the strategy of the Iranian Quds forces in the region will not change in his absence. The figurehead may be gone, but the ideology very much lives on.

As for Iran, it has a long history of dealing and gathering strength from a sense of injustice and martyrdom of its revered figures. In contrast to weakening Iran, the death of Soleimani only adds to the feeling of injustice against the country's Shiite population.

This was evident as millions gathered for the funeral procession in Soleimani's hometown of Kerman. Just recently, Iran was engulfed by deadly protests against the government amidst a steep economic crisis, yet Soleimani's death has served to somewhat unify Iranians.

Iran had vowed "severe revenge," with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif labeling Soleimani's killing an "act of war" and vowing that Iran would respond against "legitimate targets."

Meanwhile, Trump warned the U.S. would respond in the event of retaliation "perhaps in a disproportionate manner." This was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who warned that Trump would act in a "decisive, serious manner," if Iran made another "bad choice."

As U.S. and Iranian leaders continue to exchange threats, neither side can afford all-out war. While Iran has launched missile attacks in recent days, it also appears keen to draw a line under the standoff.

After all, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the primary goal of the Iranian elite has been to ensure its survival.

However, while direct attacks from Iran will be much more limited, Iranian retaliation via proxy forces in the region is more likely to continue.

On another note, it appears that the U.S. airstrike caught U.S. allies off-guard. Since Trump came to power, the anti-Iranian stance has intensified, culminating in the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord. However, EU partners have employed a much more reconciliatory tone and are unlikely to have endorsed the U.S. killing of Soleimani.

Iran influenced by a mixture of threats and incentives and the diplomatic channels is better than an Iran that feels cornered and that may double down on its regional and nuclear ambitions.

As the tense standoff between Iran and the U.S. continues, Iraq continues to be the theater, meaning more suffering for Kurds and Iraqis rather than Iranians or U.S. nationals.

* U.K.-based Middle East analyst

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