The elimination of Qassem Soleimani is the most significant act that the U.S. has carried out in the Middle East since its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Osama Bin Laden’s death merely constituted the disappearance of a fugitive. The nuclear agreement championed by Barack Obama was abandoned by the parties involved. The transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem received little support. Washington’s whole performance on the Syrian stage has been erratic. This, on the other hand, was the execution of a senior official of a rival government. The tears shed on Soleimani’s casket by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are proof that the attack ordered by Donald Trump struck directly at the heart of Iranian power.
It is not possible to dismiss Trump’s decision as a purely electoral move. Despite being unexpected and shocking, Soleimani’s assassination is a continuation of the foreign policy strategy undertaken by the U.S. president ever since his arrival in Washington. Economic sanctions against Tehran and groups that are its regional allies, the addition of the Revolutionary Guard to the list of terrorist organizations, the condemnation of the nuclear agreement and the president’s spectacular visit to Saudi Arabia, where he wasted no time in pointing out the threat posed by Iran, are some of the milestones in this relationship, which is fueled by conflict and confrontation. However, the November election cannot remain off the radar. In respect to the Middle East, Trump was not seeking the material triumph of armed conflict, but rather, to create the impression that he has the iron fist necessary to defend U.S. interests. This is the image that his supporters expect, given the climate of doubt that could be created by the impeachment effort against him.
The Iranian response was necessary, considering whom the victim of the attack was. It was almost a matter of honor. Its proportions were as expected; a few days beforehand, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, had announced that the counterattack would be proportionate, official and directed at military interests. Ayatollah Khamenei would not consent to full-on war with the world’s leading power. The vehement, red-hued rhetoric of revenge, which was unleashed in the city of Qom, veiled a silent and strategic, as well as logical, plan, resulting in a surgically executed attack against U.S. bases in Iraq.
Trump’s allies in the region announced the ceasefire in advance of the U.S. president’s speech. While the Saudi chancellor had coaxed Tehran in the direction of dialogue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assigned Soleimani’s death to the domain of an Iranian-U.S. conflict. Both governments, which are fierce rivals of the ayatollahs, steered the situation away from the path of war toward channels of negotiation. In short, as that Prussian general used to say, politics is the continuation of war by other means.
On the other hand, the terrible fate of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 was a tragedy for its victims and also for the Iranian government. The initial lie and its subsequent retraction gave way to criticism from the Green Movement, whose leaders are under house arrest because of their opposition to the regime. Even whisperings from inside the government against those responsible were echoed in the state media. The protesters took to the streets again, albeit in much smaller numbers than in the November and December protests. This situation prevented the government from capitalizing on the conflict with the United States.
A future saddled with tension looms, but this is not much different from what the region has gone through over the last 70 or 80 years. Iran desires the withdrawal of all (over 50,000) U.S. troops from the region, while Washington seeks a complete transformation in respect to the policies adopted by the ayatollah government, which, last year, commemorated 40 years of stability. These are high-priority objectives for each government respectively and herald very difficult negotiations. Meanwhile, the governments of Germany, France and the United Kingdom have requested that Iran adhere to the terms of the nuclear agreement. Trump has said slightly disdainfully that he is willing to make a new deal. The conditions for Tehran will undoubtedly be much harsher, meaning it will have to reconsider its position. A return to the 2015 agreement would guarantee the continued support of the European powers.
In the meantime, Iraq, which has been pulled in all directions, is preparing to pay the price. The Kurds there, fearing a state of greater vulnerability, are against the U.S. withdrawal. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, acting prime minister, submitted his resignation more than a month ago. This is the person behind the proposal for the withdrawal of Donald Trump’s troops.
President Barham Salih, who is also Kurdish, refuses to appoint to the role of prime minister any candidate proposed by the Fatah Alliance, which is openly aligned with Tehran. The alliance’s supporters, which include Kata’ib Hezbollah, have taken to the streets and destroyed Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy is located.
Meanwhile, anti-government protests demanding improvements in living conditions and anti-corruption measures have been taking place since October. The situation is extremely volatile, and the effects of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran will be particularly felt in this country.
Qassem Soleimani’s death did not bring the problems in the Middle East to an end. Instead, it served as a catalyst in revealing the tensions within the region. Now it is time to rebuild that delicate regional stability, which, like a house of cards, is always fragile and vulnerable.