US lobs a grenade into a box of fireworks
Washington and Tehran may consider their next moves after drone kills top Iranian general, but restraint is the likeliest casualty
The long-rumbling US-Iran crisis has moved to a new and extremely febrile phase, after the US took out General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top commander in Iraq, in a targeted attack at Baghdad airport.
For months, tension has been high in the Mid-East Gulf—with attacks on shipping, on Saudi oil facilities and on other infrastructure. Iraq, where both the US and Iran have strong interests and strong allies, has been a particular focus in recent weeks. Against the background of a serious domestic political crisis, Iran-back militias attacked US facilities in the country, which appears to have sparked the fierce American response.
While the US and Iran had previously been careful to prevent matters getting out of hand, the killing of Soleimani raises the stakes far above anything seen before. While neither the US or Iran want a full-scale war, retaliation of some kind seems inevitable. Even if the Iranian government might prefer a measured response, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and especially its powerful Quds force that Soleimani commanded, will be hungry for revenge. At risk will be American interests throughout the Middle East and possibly further afield. US allies, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where American forces are based, will also be on maximum alert.
The Trump administration may hope that the removal of Soleimani will be the first step in a process leading to regime change in Tehran. But the near-term prospects of such an outcome are remote. The assassination of a prominent Iranian general at the hands of the US is likely to increase anti-American feelings and strengthen the hand of Iranian conservatives.
Iran will also be keen to show that its commitment to Iraq remains strong. And any hope that had bubbled below the surface over recent months that the Trump administration and the Iranian leadership might begin a dialogue has evaporated.
The Middle East as a whole can now expect a period of tension and uncertainty, two factors expertly designed to deter international oil companies (IOCs) and other institutions from investing in the region. Saudi Arabia, still recovering from the material and psychological impact of September's oil facilities' drone attacks, will know that the latest developments represent a further obstacle to its plan to lure international investors as part of its Vision 2030 strategy to lessen dependence on oil.
President Trump's move bears no real sign of being part of a coherent Middle East strategy—indeed it smacks mainly of a cynical, and incredibly dangerous, re-election campaign ploy. It is unlikely to reassure the US' long-standing allies in the region that the country, under its current regime, is a reliable defence partner. Worst of all, it appears to offer little strategic gain for the interests of the US, other stakeholder nations or existing or potential investors (including IOCs) in the region, while opening up a cornucopia of consequent scenarios, almost all of which are worse than what has gone before.