US faceoff with Iran enters new phase

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group - “Some of [the] Iranian partners who have looser ties to Tehran might decide to take matters into their own hands without awaiting a green light from Tehran.”

Sunday 05/01/2020
US Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, reinforce the US Embassy Compound in Baghdad, January 2.    (Reuters)
Tighter security. US Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, reinforce the US Embassy Compound in Baghdad, January 2. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US air strike on a military base near Baghdad International Airport.

Soleimani was commander of al-Quds Force, the foreign branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, was also killed in the January 3 strike.

The attack came shortly after US President Donald Trump ordered the US Army 82nd Airborne Division to deploy to Kuwait. At least 750 paratroopers were to be sent to the region, said US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper.

The entire brigade of approximately 4,000 soldiers has been told to prepare for possible deployment. The United States has deployed nearly 14,000 troops in the past six months to combat Iranian influence.

Unrest began following funerals for 25 Iraqi militiamen killed in a US air strike December 29. The attack targeted the Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the United States said is responsible for an attack that killed a US contractor and wounded several US troops.

Analysts said further conflict within Iraq is likely. “If Iran does need to respond and make a performance out of this, the fear is that there will be something more than just loading rockets at embassies,” said Fanar Haddad of Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” for the attack and the Iranian security forces reportedly met to discuss retaliation.

The January 3 attack may seriously change the face of the conflict between Washington and Tehran. Ramzy Mardini, a fellow with the US Institute of Peace, said the unprecedented nature of the attack makes it difficult to predict how it will change the current situation. “It’s likely that all actors on all sides will be playing things by ear in the short term, which is a recipe for miscalculation,” he said.

Mardini said the attack may serve as a lesson to Iran that it can no longer use its affiliates in Iraq to target the United States “without risking an American conventional retaliation on Iran.”

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, writing on Twitter, said: “Tehran might calculate that a proportional response might not invite a US counterattack or it might deem a disproportionate response a deterrence against further escalation by a US president who says he is averse to Middle Eastern quagmires.”

Vaez said the attack may provide an opening for Iranian allies and affiliates to carrying out 
their own strikes.

“An equally grave concern is that some of [the] Iranian partners who have looser ties to Tehran might decide to take matters into their own hands without awaiting a green light from Tehran,” tweeted Vaez.

The events could increase instability in Iraq, which Iran could take advantage of, Haddad said. “It could set Iraq along the path of internal conflict and that’s something Iran could very easily instigate,” he said.

Iraqi stability is crucial for Washington’s broader interests in the Middle East, said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “A strong and unified Iraq not only is the best practical defence against regional extremism, it becomes a critical buffer that limits Iran as a threat,” Cordesman said in a CSIS commentary.
Cordesman asserted that an independent Iraq may have the greatest positive effects on US security.

“Ultimately, the US might also find that an independent Iraq — rather than a formal strategic partner — might be the key to any lasting security arrangements in the Gulf that guaranteed Iran security without leaving the rest of the region vulnerable,” he wrote.

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