Tensions between the United States and Iran have entered uncharted territory following the killing of Commander Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq, with experts fearing the incident could trigger a conflict between the two sides.
Soleimani rose steadily through the ranks of the Iranian military until he was named in 2002 the head of al-Quds Force, the most elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force (IRGC). Soleimani is considered very close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and under his watch, al-Quds Force has been linked to killings and assassination attempts in countries ranging Syria and Lebanon to Germany and even India.
Following a bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s vehicle in the Indian capital in February 2012, Delhi Police had come to the conclusion that the suspects involved in the unsuccessful bombing were members of the IRGC, media reports had said at the time. The attack had occurred at the same time as other attacks linked to the IRGC in Bangkok, Thailand, and Tbilisi, Georgia.
The al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella group of Iran-controlled militias in Iraq, announced on Twitter that Soleimani was killed along with its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran’s state-run media said the strike was carried out at Baghdad airport.
Responding to the attack, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani – THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al – is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
The Pentagon, in a statement, said Soleimani was killed at “the direction of the President” in a “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad”. The strike was retaliation for the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, which was carried out by Iran-backed militias.
The US statement further said Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”. It also accused Soleimani and al-Quds Force, which along with IRGC was designated by the US as terrorist organisations in April 2019, of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition personnel.
“He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” the statement said.
Tensions between the US and Iran have spiralled since Washington imposed strict sanctions on Iranian oil exports last year, forcing major importers such as India, China and Japan, to cut purchases to zero. Tensions had spiked after several attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf last year, which the US and its allies had blamed on Iran.
The al-Quds Forces and organisations linked to it have been associated with Tehran’s efforts to influence developments in countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria through unconventional warfare.
Former CIA director David Petraeus once recounted a story at a think tank event that demonstrated Soleimani’s influence. While leading the US campaign in Iraq in 2008, Petraeus received a text message from Suleimani that was conveyed by a senior Iraqi leader: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
Soleimani’s death could be a major tipping point, given his proximity to Iran’s Supreme Leader. The al-Quds Force, along with the rest of the IRGC, reports to Khamenei, and some considered Soleimani to be more powerful than Iran’s President in matters of foreign policy.
“We shouldn’t be surprised to see the Supreme Leader order covert operations all over the globe (including, dare I say, in the US) that involve assassinations & other acts of terrorism We should expect to see the most significant/aggressive response,” tweeted Yashar Ali, a journalist who closely tracks developments in Iran.
He added in another tweet: “But killing Soleimani is not like killing the head of a terrorist org. It’s like killing the head of a terrorist organization and a head of state. You have to treat it as such and the US has not DIRECTLY engaged in assassinations on that level in decades.”
Given India’s strong relations with both the US and Iran – external affairs minister S Jaishankar recently visited Tehran for a meeting with counterpart Javad Zarif – and the presence of some 8 million Indian expatriates in West Asia, any escalation in tensions could have widespread ramifications for New Delhi, both in terms of foreign policy and economy, particularly crude prices.
The Indian nationals in the Gulf region account for about $40 billion of the $70 billion that India receives in remittances annually, and any conflict could not only affect this but also trigger a massive exodus of the expatriates.