On Friday, January 3rd, 2020 the United States launched a drone strike that killed top Iranian military official, Lieutenant General, Qassim Soleimani near the Baghdad airport in Iraq. Soleimani was head of the Iranian Quds Force, the military intelligence unit in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Soleimani was killed along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, Hashd al-Shaabi), which is an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia. The United States noted that his death was carried out on the grounds of posing an imminent threat to the United States’ military and diplomatic officials. US President Donald Trump also noted that the recent attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad were carried out at the direction of Soleimani.
Designated as a terrorist in 2011, Soleimani has been linked to pivotal military operations throughout Iraq and Iran, and has led the campaign of fostering regional influence, which spread to Yemen and Lebanon. Responses from around the region, and other countries around the world have condemned the attack and fear retaliation by Iran. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani has labeled the attack as a ‘act of international terrorism’. The United States has moved additional military forces into the region, which only seems to further escalate the tensions in the region.
Soleimani was widely perceived as the mastermind behind Iran’s foreign activities. He gained notable prominence through spearheading Iran’s intervention in neighboring Arab countries following the Arab Spring upheavals. Soleimani’s political life and later on his death were both met by controversy in the region. His death was celebrated in some areas while mourned in others (both scenes from the same country). Several factors can help explain this phenomenon, amongst which is how some perceive him as a murderer that committed atrocities in Iraq and Syria while others see him as an integral piece of the resistance against imperialism.
While this piece is not concerned with supporting or refuting any of the previous positions, one should note that Soleimani was a highly influential figure that was seen by many as the first man in Iran after the Supreme Leader. As such, his death is without a doubt a significant blow to Iran’s elite Quds Force. Yet despite this blow Iran quickly moved to appoint Brigadier General Ismail Ghani as the new commander of the Quds Force, a move that could underline a cohesive leadership structure within the Quds Force. In resemblance with other prominent figures in the Iranian government, Brigadier General Ismail Ghani vowed retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination.
Iran hasn’t taken any retaliatory measures against the United States or US assets at this point. However, Iran's ballistic missile units across the country are at a high level of readiness, according to a US official. The news on Iran’s ballistic missiles preparation were followed by a tweet by US President Trump in which he threatened to bomb 52 targets across Iran. Furthermore, Iran has further stated that it will no longer abide by the limitations stipulated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear dear) on its capacity for and levels of uranium enrichment.
From its side, the Iraqi Parliament passed a motion that calls for the expulsion of US troops following Soleimani assassination. The motion came after former Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi condemned the attack as a breach of Iraqi sovereignty. President Trump threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq if US troops are expelled. Furthermore, the US-led coalition has meanwhile suspended its training to Iraqi forces and its operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The coming days remain crucial in identifying how the situation in Iran and the Middle East will unfold, particularly as countries anticipate a further response from Iran.