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The Death of a General: What’s next for Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East?

Article by Dr Simon Mabon and SEPAD project colleagues

January 16, 2020

The Death of a General: What’s next for Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East?

Following the United States (US) assassination of Qasim Soleimani – the erstwhile commander of the Quds Force, the elite wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, – close to Baghdad airport, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding bill calling for the US to leave the country. The strike against Soleimani has serious implications for a range of areas including: Iraqi politics; Iranian activity across the region; the fight against Da’ish (ISIS); and more. In this piece, scholars working with SEPAD (the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project of the Richardson Institute for Peace) [1] share their thoughts on the decision and the impact for Iraq and the wider Middle East.


The Implications for Iraq


Fanar Haddad (Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore) argues that ‘ultimately, Iran’s most potent response might be a political rather than a military one: consolidating its grip on Iraqi politics and forcing a US withdrawal. However, the matter is complicated by Iraqi dynamics. Recent events are proving increasingly polarising: Sunni and Kurdish political actors fear the rise of a majoritarian Iran-leaning Baghdad; the Iraqi protest movement is as adamant on the necessity of systemic change as ever before; and the tensions between Iran-aligned and non-Iran-aligned actors are likely to get worse. Even if a withdrawal is not achieved, the assassinations have succeeded in lending Iran-leaning actors what they have been searching for since the protests began: a counter-cause to enable counter-protests and counter-pressure. The US has a lot of coercive leverage over Iraq (economic, diplomatic and military) but lacks the political assets and soft power that will be needed for the contest that Iran is initiating.’


Regional Politics


Dr Lawrence Rubin (Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology) believes that ‘concerning implications for the region, it’s too early to say given the uncertainty in Iraqi politics and the most recent gaffe from US regarding troop withdrawal.  Naturally, the most important aspect will be how it plays out in Iraqi politics and second, how the US manages it. Sectarian politics have and will continue to play a role because of which Iraqi groups’ interests are more closely aligned with the US presence in the region.


Two facts also remain: the US is both a stabilising and destabilising force in Iraqi politics and this is a microcosm for the region. The US presence in Iraq would reassure the Saudis and Emiratis (and others) that the US hasn’t abandoned them. If the US withdraws from Iraq, Iran and Russia will have to fill the vacuum to fight a resurgent ISIS. If the US remains, the US presence will continue to be a counter-mobilising symbol for opposition and destabilising political influence in Iraq as well as a target of opportunity for Iran. Meanwhile, the uncertainty takes the attention off of the Syrian-Russian and Turkish campaign in Syria.’


Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Iranian Question


Dr Simon Mabon believes that ‘the US decision to strike against Soleimani has caused a great deal of concern amongst many of Washington’s key allies. In the immediate days after the strike a number of prominent Gulf diplomats spoke of the need for de-escalation including, perhaps most surprisingly, Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister. Under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a vociferously anti-Iranian foreign policy, best seen in the military incursion in Yemen, yet after a strike on a Saudi ship in 2019, officials in Riyadh called for calm, much to the surprise of many. In these two instances, it appears that pragmatism has triumphed, although as the regional security environment continues to be precarious, it remains to be seen how long this pragmatic approach can last’.


Haian Dukhan (Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews) thinks that ‘the non-binding resolution asking the US troops to leave Iraq will raise more questions about the legality and the legitimacy of the presence of the US troops in Syria. Strategically, if the withdrawal happens, it will also have a great impact on its newly built bases on Deir Ezzor, the eastern governorate of Syria, as these bases are mainly reliant on the logistic support from their counterparts in Iraq. The question will be then whether the Americans will be able to maintain their presence in eastern Syria if they withdraw from Iraq’.


Iranian Foreign Policy


SEPAD Fellow Banafsheh Keynoush thinks ‘Soleimani’s legacy to the region could be a lengthy war of attrition if the US and Iran do not agree on a framework that allows for limited US military presence and Iranian influence inside Iraq. Tehran will wield influence over multiple Iraqi actors who negotiate with the US to decide on this framework. The Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who visited Soleimani’s house after the killing, has called for an end to the US occupation of Iraq. Iraq’s sitting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is a go between figure for Iran, could be reinstalled despite previous calls by Iraqis for his resignation.


Signs point to US and Iranian restraint in managing the future of their presence in Iraq. Iran could still insist on a hardline position, but it will engage in give and take when its interests demand. Iran’s missile attacks on the Iraqi bases did not lead to death tolls for the Americans. In exchange, the US ordered its diplomats to limit links with Iranian opposition groups. Still, Iran considers itself to be in a war. This means that it may still engage in conflicts that take on conventional, asymmetrical or even nonconventional forms if the Iran nuclear deal is not revived.’


Dr Edward Wastnidge (Deputy Director of SEPAD and Lecturer at the Open University) believes that  ‘the assassination of Qasim Soleimani was a clear illustration of the Trump administration’s total lack of a coherent strategy on Iran and the wider region. It shows how petulant, misguided and incoherent his and his close aides’ ideas are when it comes to Iran. The fact that Trump has veterans from the US’ occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan directing US military adventurism helps drive this vindictive policy. They are so focused on seeing Iran as the enemy that they let this cloud every judgement that they make.


In many ways his is the hallmark of a hubristic imperial power that has miscalculated the level of opposition to its damaging policies in the region. It could be that Soleimani’s greatest achievement comes as a result of his murder – insofar as it could herald the start of a US withdrawal from Iraq, thus meeting one of the Islamic Republic’s key foreign policy aims. The need for an inclusive regional security architecture, free of external interference, is more pressing than ever.  It is with the people of the region that the answers lie, not the think-tanks and vested interests of the commentariat in DC and elsewhere.’


Meysam Tayebipour (Research Fellow with the Richardson Institute) believes that ‘the death of Qasim Soleimani is a significant loss for the Iranian regime, as he was the most prominent Iranian figure in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In other words, Soleimani and the Quds force boosted Iran’s geopolitical importance in the region. One would be surprised to see his successor (Esmail Ghaani) be as influential in the head of Quds force as he was. Soleimani also had an important role in Iran’s domestic politics. Thanks to his charismatic personality, he was portrayed by some Iranians as a righteous man. That was the reason that many people participated in his funeral. Not all those who took part in Soleimani’s funeral were supporters of the regime.

By killing him, Trump injected new blood into the broken body of the Islamic Republic. Before Soleimani’s death, people were on the streets protesting against the regime. But after Soleimani’s assassination, once again, people were on the streets, but this time for expressing their sadness for the loss of Iran second most powerful man. The Islamic Republic could not ask for a better enemy.’

Olivia Globitza (SEPAD PhD Fellow) thinks that ‘even though the US have for the moment rejected Iraq’s request to withdraw its troops, a potential withdrawal is by far not off the table. Yet, the repercussions of such a move are complex and unlikely to please everyone in the region. While certainly welcomed by many, particularly those opposed to US presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, including Iran, it will open new fissures and tap into the fears of those that believe Iran will seek to take advantage of the void the US will leave behind, and substantially increase its influence over Iraq.’


Eyad Al Refai (SEPAD PhD Fellow) believes ‘the discussion on the implications of the US withdrawal from the Middle East has a long legacy. Therefore, opinions on this case shift depending on the situation of regional and global orders. However, In the current political context in the Middle East, where the state is significantly threatened due to its weakness and broad regional conflicts, these implications are mostly detrimental to the regional and the international system. The current US presence in the region, after its departure from Iraq in 2011, is primarily due to the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings and the prevalence of terrorist sectarian militias that filled vacuums. The US withdrawal from the region cannot remedy domestic grievances and regional manipulation, which led the state system in the region to its current collapse. American troops stretch from Europe to Asia however it is only in the Middle East that such a presence is discussed heavily through a cynical lens, and such views are reasonable considering the American legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the answers to the region’s issues are regionally based, and in fact, the current presence of American troops is the result of invitations by states in the region.’


Photo by Ali Khamenei, under Creative Commons.

[1] Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) project is based at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute,  The Foreign Policy Centre is a project partner of SEPAD,

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