A U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has led to increasing tensions in the Middle East. His death came amid recent escalating antagonism between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq, which has become a microcosm of the intensified rivalry between Washington and Tehran.
On January 8, Iran directly retaliated against the U.S. by launching missiles at two military bases in Iraq which house U.S. troops. However, the attack did not lead to U.S. casualties, according to President Donald Trump in a televised address from the White House.
Since October 2019, waves of protests and demonstrations in Iraq have been driven by people's dissatisfaction with the Iraqi Government's inability to curb corruption or support infrastructure building. They are also tired of the instability and chaos in the country. Against this backdrop, the Iran-backed paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or Hashd al-Shaabi, has emerged as the most salient faction within Iraq, playing a prominent role in the protests.
The PMU came out of the turbulent situation in 2014 after the terrorist group ISIS's rapid expansion in Iraq. It was organized based on Shia sectarian groups and supported by the IRGC, especially the Quds Force which was in charge of IRGC's overseas operations. After years of combat against ISIS, the PMU has become a powerful political and military element within Iraq.
The PMU largely maintains its independence within Iraq's political arena, with its militias refusing to obey orders from the government. The organization and its supporters attribute the chaos in Iraq to U.S. intervention and call for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Meanwhile, the U.S. and some Iraqi political forces labeled the PMU as an "agent" of Iran.
The hostility between Iran and the U.S. reached new heights when the U.S. conducted a military strike against targets of Kataib Hezbollah near Baghdad, claiming that the PMU-affiliated faction planned and launched an attack against U.S. military personnel in late December 2019. In response, hundreds of militants penetrated the Green Zone in Baghdad where the U.S. embassy is located and tried to break through its walls.
The U.S. blamed these protests on PMU factions, especially Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, Saraya al-Khorasani and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. It then claimed that since all these groups have close ties to Iran, especially with Soleimani, targeting him and other leaders from the PMU was reasonable.
The killing of Soleimani shocked many Middle East analysts, with many saying that the U.S. action was totally out of proportion given Soleimani's widespread influence.
Soleimani was the leader of most of the Tehran-backed Shia groups in the Middle East, including the PMU in Iraq and many groups in Syria. He was also highly influential inside Iran. For example, before the presidential election in 2017, Soleimani was considering a run and only gave up the idea after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised him not to. He was seen by many analysts as a leading hopeful in the 2021 presidential election.
People attend the funeral of Soleimani in Kerman, Iran, on January 7 (XINHUA)
The missiles targeting U.S. military bases were launched from Iranian territory by the IRGC, not the Iranian army, showing that Iran did not "declare" war on the U.S. In addition, Iran only targeted military bases in Iraq, not in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, showing that its intention was to restrict the conflict with the U.S. to a limited area in the Middle East and avoid confrontations throughout the region.
The attack did not meet with an escalation from the U.S. Trump even said: "Iran appears to be standing down," calling it "a good thing" for all parties concerned. He declared that additional economic sanctions will be imposed on Iran and urged other parties to the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015 between the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, and the EU and Iran, to abandon it as the U.S. had.
Washington's final aim is to constrain Iran's influence through forcing concessions at the negotiation table. Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said many times that they want to meet with Iranian leaders or visit Tehran directly, but pulling out of the deal, imposing economic sanctions and killing a major national figure make these words seem hollow.
Given the U.S. strategy of "maximum pressure" against the country, Iran decided to also pull out of the nuclear deal in stages and recently announced the final stage.
However, Iran's decision should not be viewed as a move to isolate itself from the international community. It still maintains cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors its nuclear research process. Iran's collaboration with the IAEA makes transparent its nuclear facilities and research process to the outside world, belying the claim that it intends to develop nuclear weapons, which has historically been done in secret by other countries.
The real intent of Iran's withdrawal from the deal is to capture the attention of the international community and seek assistance from different powers, especially the EU, to help mediate the escalating crisis between Tehran and Washington. At the same time, it is determined to safeguard its sovereignty and national pride.
Escalating tensions with the U.S. is not in Iran's interest. Tehran's retaliation for the killing of Soleimani was limited in scale and the hope of restoring positive ties with Washington still remains.
However, the risk of an escalation of tensions also remains. Shia military groups supported by the IRGC in several Middle East countries, especially Iraq and Syria, may attack U.S. targets, assets, and individuals. Since there is no direct communication channel between Iran and the U.S., any attacks launched by these groups may be viewed by Washington as Iranian coordinated strikes, which could lead to more instability in the region.
Therefore, diplomatic efforts are highly and urgently needed. Russia and the EU should act to help relieve tensions between the two countries.
As a signatory party of the Iran nuclear deal and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is willing to play a constructive role in deescalating the recent crisis. "China will continue to follow closely the situation, stay in close contact with the relevant sides, and play a responsible role in cooling off tensions and properly managing the situation," Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on January 8.
More rational minds, not fanaticism or antagonism, should prevail in the Middle East.
Source: Beijing Review 2020-01-13