All eyes on Tehran. The United States assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the longtime chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a singular figure in the Middle East over the past two decades, with an airstrike at the Baghdad airport early on Friday morning. Soleimani had just arrived on a flight from Lebanon. Also killed were a senior commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and (reportedly) deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem. The Pentagon said the strikes were intended to deter future Iranian aggression in the region, while the State Department said they were motivated by an “imminent” attack on U.S. facilities in the region by Iran or Iran-backed militias in Iraq. This is, to put it mildly, a dramatic escalation in the U.S.-Iran confrontation, pushing what’s largely been a shadow war waged by proxies for more than a decade out into the open. As chief of the IRGC’s notorious Quds Force, Soleimani had been instrumental in a range of efforts that ran counter to U.S. interests, including countless insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq in the 2000s, Baghdad's subsequent expulsion of U.S. forces from the country, Iran’s successful campaign to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war back in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the surge in Hezbollah’s capabilities on Israel’s border. He was also spearheading Iran’s recent resurgence of influence in Iraq and presumably played some role in last week’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq by pro-Iran militiamen. But his death will hardly deal a death blow to Iran’s expansion in the region or its ability to attack U.S. interests. Given the popularity of Soleimani at home and Iran’s need to deter future assassinations, Tehran will almost certainly be compelled to respond in one form or another. For now, a cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation is more likely than a spiral toward all-out war, given the correlation of forces and Tehran’s limited capacity for escalation.
Soleimani’s assassination could have wide-ranging implications beyond the direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. In Iraq, where the U.S. Embassy is already urging Americans to evacuate immediately, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi condemned the attack, and Iraq’s parliament is reportedly planning to hold an emergency meeting to “discuss decisive decisions to put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq.” Notably, though, the response from influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was more muted. In a statement, he called on Iran to avoid escalation, obliquely criticized pro-Iran militias, pledged to revive his own militia, the Mahdi Army, and didn’t mention the United States by name. Elsewhere, Israel has put its embassies and the military on high alert amid calls by Hezbollah for revenge attacks. Curiously, Germany cast blame for the escalation solely on Iran. One other thing to watch is whether more distant powers like Japan that had been planning on dispatching naval forces to the region to protect open sea lanes will remain willing to do so if war between the United States and Iran appears to be a real possibility.
-Geopolitical Futures, this morning