Analysis: Qasem Soleimani's assassination raises issues for Iran, the Middle East, the United States, Russia and the EU

A few days into the new decade and a major event threatens to colour 2020 and the next few years with more violence. The assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or pasdaran, by an American strike ordered by US president Donald Trump took place near Baghdad International Airport last week.

An extra-judiciary killing whose legality is under question, it is likely to bring more violence and war to the Middle East. In the past decade, the region has seen a number of military foreign interventions causing, escalating and deepening conflicts, and the trend for the future will likely remain unchanged.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, lecturer in international security at the University of Bradford, Paul Rogers, on how the assassination of Qasem Soleimani is the most significant incident you could imagine short of an actual war

While Europe seems to be geographically removed from this scenario, it is directly involved at least in two ways. First, more violence will cause more people to move, possibly seeking international protection and safety in Europe. How will the EU react to this scenario? Will the EU continue its policy of closed borders, or will it elaborate a better response?

Second, the EU has an opportunity to take responsibility and assume international leadership. This is especially noteworthy given the short-sighted and unilateral policies of the US administration, which has puzzled international governance since the withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. It is an opportunity to halt support for authoritarian leaders and their false "stability", which instead feeds the cycle of dispossession, repression and revolt.

The importance of Soleimani

An Iran-Iraq war hero, Soleimani has been a crucial figure in Iranian politics since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. He became known to the larger public in Iran and abroad since 2013, when he headed a number of successful operation to contain the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which earned him the nickname "supermani". Soleimani was the head of the Al-Quds forces, an elite commando within the Revolutionary Guards devoted to foreign military operations. He worked in Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, supporting Iranian allies and proxies by organising and training them.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, former British ambassador to Tehran, Richard Dalton, on if Brexit negotiations increase pressure on the UK to get behind the Solemani killing

The general was deeply implicated in one of the most important foreign policies of the Islamic Republic, that is its non-state allies. While Iran avoids "boots on the ground", it does exert a strong influence in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq through the presence of proxies. It is no coincidence that the leader of the pro-Iran Kateib Hezbollah group, Abu Mahdi Al Mohandes, was killed in the strike on Thursday. The two were on the same car hit by the US rockets, after a series of recent episodes exacerbating US-Iran tensions in Iraq.

The possible scenarios

While scenarios rapidly change, it is possible to identify some of them. At a domestic level, the departure of the general is unlikely to cause any major change in the institutional arrangements of the Islamic Republic or the pasdaran. A new general has been nominated to head the Al-Quds forces, Esmail Ghani.

While the Supreme Leader Khamenei has called for a "harsh revenge", this is a standard reaction which is unlikely to generate any major military retaliation. In spite of the seriousness of Soleimani’s killing, Khamenei has proven to be patient and rational during the years and, unlike Trump, has consistently avoided escalation. However, the assassination will have a significant impact on the public sphere, further securitising all expression of dissent and opposition, both within the elite and from below.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Professor of Politics at the Doha Institute in Qatar, Sultan Barakat, on the possible consequences of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani

At a regional level, Israel and Saudi Arabia will celebrate the news, reasoning that any blow against their arch-enemy is a gain for them. Iran’s Syrian ally Bashar Al-Assad will possibly be untouched by the event, thanks to the Russian protection he enjoys.

Those who will pay the highest price are the social and in potentia revolutionary movements which had emerged in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq in the past months. Caught in the escalation of regional tensions, the people’s legitimate aspirations and demands for social justice and decent governance will likely be crushed and silenced. The re-mobilisation of the pro-Iran Mahdi Army in Iraq, which was disbanded in 2008, and the call to "resistance fighters" around the world to punish Soleimani’s killers issued by the Lebanese Hezbollah suggest that the assassination will have further negative consequences for the protesters, who had been violently targeted before the killing too, both in Iraq and Lebanon.

At an international level, Trump hopes to elicit support for his re-election and shift the attention away from his impeachment, while Putin gains credibility as the leader who brought stability to the region. There is a potential for violence to escalate because the US allies in the region will likely push Trump towards more action, regardless of Tehran’s reaction, while Putin is unlikely to extend military or political protection to Iran.

What's next?

For the moment, an additional 3,000 US troops have been sent to the region as a precaution and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units has been bombed in Iraq by the US military, killing a top commander of the militia group. Apart from expressing opposition to US adventurism and a military confrontation with Iran, the EU has the opportunity to implement a different set of policies than those adopted so far.

Building a solid response alternative to Trump’s "max pressure" on Iran and regularly issuing visas will change its geopolitical position, so far too dependent on Libyan military power groups and on other authoritarian rulers in the region. As the new decade opens with a gamble, politics seems the only considerate bet to place.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ