The Middle East in 2020

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The Middle East in 2020
After Soleimani assassination: Options for the US 

  Vivek Mishra

The assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani of Iran sent geopolitical shockwaves around the world, bringing the region at the brink of a war that potentially threatened the entire Gulf region, global energy supplies and revived the debate around Iran’s nuclear capability. President Trump’s decision to kill one of the most inspiring leaders of Iran and an able military strategizer in a foreign country complicates regional relations for the US, which were already strained. In the latest round of exchange, when protesters attacked the US embassy in Iraq, the US accused Iran of backing the protesters which it thought could lead to an attack on its embassy. 

The assassination Soleimani proves to be the proverbial last straw which could ensure that Iran will be further reluctant to join any commitments proposed by the US or other western powers forcing compromise.

What next is unpredictable
Although many expect that the complex set of proxy wars that are going on in the West Asian region for the past decade will only intensify from here, what unfolds in the region from now on is actually unpredictable. However, how the US perceives it may be different and worth noting. The US expects that the killing of Soleimani will have long term implications for regional proxy wars that continue to inflict the region. The unmissable idea behind killing Soleimani was to leave Iran’s proxy wars in the region and its support to various militia groups that fight on its behalf, leaderless. One of the strongest defenses for Iran’s Soleimani was that proxy militias led by him fought on the side of the US and against the ISIS. 

As such, the timing of the elimination of Soleimani also suggests that for the US Soleimani had served his purpose, given the Trump’s already announced victory against the ISIS and the terrorist organization’s fading abilities. However, some assessments pointing towards the revival of ISIS, as soon as the US military leaves the US in toto, which could complicate regional security. Given Trump’s inward-looking foreign policy dispensation, a further reduction of US troop presence in the Middle East is likely. Growing regional anti-Iran protests in Iraq and Lebanon provided an obvious rationale to the US for killing Soleimani. Given these regional backlash against Iran, coupled with the anti-government protests and protests for reform in Iran domestically, the US sensed the right time for attack in a politically divided region. Weeks after the attack, the US calculations retrospectively seem validated by the lack of any combined regional response against the US. The Iranian missile retaliation that followed immediately after Soleimani’s killing and the Iraqi parliament resolution for the eviction of US forces have proven to be rather timid for the US in actuality.

For the US, the timing of the attack may have been calculated given the series of protests that have inflicted Iran internally, where common people have taken to streets to protest against political elites and leadership. As these protests have been going on for months now, the sustained nature of political disenchantment with the Iranian leadership would have been factored as the right time for the US. In such a scenario, the political push back against the US would be blunted to some extent. 

What are the likely consequences?
Domestically the US Congress was divided with Republicans backing President’s decisive action and Democrats questioning the reckless action bringing the US at the doorstep of a war. There was no immediate trigger for killing Soleimani except US hunches that the Iranian General "could have been" targeting US embassies. The killing of Soleimani has deepened divide in Iraq where the fight for political change led to demonstrations against the government for giving freehand to the American actions to challenge Iraqi sovereignty.

Even though the Iranian regime looks restrained in their countermeasures against the US, beside the volley of missile attacks around two US bases in the Middle East, more regional responses both from Iran and militias across Syria, Iraq and Lebanon must have been factored by the US. 
As the latest set of rockets have hit very close to the US embassy in the Green Zone, the US is kept on security tenterhooks by the regional militias. While the popular discourse on latest US-Iran tensions has been built around Soleimani, the US should also factor Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi), who was also killed in the attack. It would not be a wild guess to accord the latest rocket attacks to the PMF, as the organization has vowed revenge upon the US after the killing of the group’s leader. However, the killing of Muhandis is likely to affect Iran’s Iraqi mobilization of militias.

That Trump authorized Soleimani's killing 7 months ago shows that it was carefully planned and possible regional repercussions factored. But weakening regional hold and growing informal nature of the war in the region has positioned Washington in the realm of conjectures apropos regional responses. Domestically in the US, the action on Iran’s military leader has failed to generate a bipartisan support in the Congress and leaves regional tensions at a new low. Besdies, the attack ensures that the Iranian nuclear deal, the JCPOA, is buried. Although there is significant pressure from European partners, it is highly unlikely that Iran will revive the talks around its nuclear enrichment and proliferation. 

The attack in itself was by no means an end in itself. If anything, it further complicated regional proxy wars, with neither Iran nor the US likely to back down. While Iran has strategic interests in the region to sustain even in the absence of Soleimani, the Trump Administration has to consolidate political views around Soleimani’s killing back home and use it for the election debate which is heating up for the upcoming Presidential elections in November this year.

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