Killing Soleimani: a tactical lunge with strategic consequences

  • Middle East and North Africa
Killing Soleimani: a tactical lunge with strategic consequences

One of the Top 5 Risks we identified in RiskMap 2020 was the propensity of global leaders to pursue tactical policies not backed by a sound strategy. The year has barely started, but our prediction that this tactical world is highly likely to result in far-reaching geopolitical miscalculations may have already become a reality. US President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Qods Force and arguably Iran’s second most powerful man, has shaken the Middle East and is likely to have geopolitical consequences far beyond the region.

A gamble of uncertain proportions

The US describes the decision to kill Soleimani as tactical and the timing as opportunistic. Yet it is far from clear that any immediate tactical benefits will outweigh the strategic consequences for US interests and objectives in the region. The action does not seem to fit any long-term regional strategy aligned with US interests and objectives in the region. President Trump’s critics have accused him of not having calculated the potential consequences – intentional or otherwise – of the strike for the US or its allies.

If the US strategy was to pre-empt imminent attack on US citizens in Iraq, the attack has achieved the opposite, raising security threats to US military and commercial assets in the region. Although US embassies in Iraq, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East may be well secured, pro-Iran groups could also target US assets in other parts of the world. Iran has a track record of carrying out operations in Europe and even in South America, including alleged involvement in a 1994 attack against the Israeli Association in Argentina.

If the objective was to escalate the US administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran, then the attack is unlikely to increase Iranian leaders’ readiness to negotiate a new nuclear deal. On the contrary, Iran has already announced plans to remove limits on its nuclear enrichment and appears to be stepping further away from JCPOA and potential negotiations to reinstate it.

President Trump’s move may also undermine another important US objective in the region – eliminating the Islamic State (IS) legacy in Iraq. Although the so-called caliphate may have been defeated, the threat from IS in Iraq and more widely has not disappeared. Fighters have dispersed and remain capable of mounting attacks. If US combat troops are forced to withdraw from Iraq or curtail operations as a result of the action against Soleimani, it would weaken efforts to deal with this threat.

In geopolitical terms, the US seems to have strengthened Iran’s position once again. The Trump administration’s recent decision to scale back its military presence in Syria has already bolstered Iranian and Russian influence. Now the killing of Soleimani promises more strategic benefits for Tehran. The Iraqi parliament has already voted to remove US troops from the country, while recent anti-Iran protests in Iraq have been replaced by an upsurge in Shia solidarity and anti-US mobilisation. Even if temporary, this change in attitude will shape the future balance of power in Iraq and most likely strengthen Iranian influence in the country. It has also given Iran a diplomatic dividend in parts of the world that dislike the US’s hegemonic stance under Trump.

The key question now is whether Iranian leaders – who have used Soleimani’s death as an opportunity to promote Iran’s soft power across the region, and rally Shia and nationalist anti-US sentiment – will respond in a similarly tactical manner or decide to play the long strategic game. Despite the media frenzy over the past few days, Iran can still choose how and when it retaliates. Iran may have bought itself time by staging two airstrikes on US bases in Iraq, but its regime is likely to come under further internal pressure to mete out a response more costly to the US. Any action that involves killing US troops or citizens could trigger a similarly unpredictable – but nonetheless destructive– move from Trump, whose hardline stance may well have been calculated with domestic politics in mind.

A more cool-headed response that builds on current pro-Iran sympathies to diminish the US footprint in the Middle East could help Tehran to sustain and even expand its influence in the region. Such a strategy would help to continue to drive a wedge - as far as Iranian matters are concerned - between the US and its allies, such as the UK, Europe and states in the Gulf. Fear of an Iranian response against the recent backdrop of the US’s unwillingness to defend its Gulf allies may even produce a new détente in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, opening new prospects for stabilisation in Yemen and Syria.

Global geopolitical consequences

Beyond the Middle East, the US decision to kill a prominent foreign official without a clear justification under international law will further undermine US national interests in Europe, Asia and even closer to home in the Americas. European allies that are committed to upholding the rules-based international order have shown little support for the US action, with some – like the French – making their concerns public. This reaction is likely to have further fuelled Euroscepticism in the White House.

At the same time, the Trump administration’s failure to consult, or even inform, the British and French governments – which have their own military forces posted in the region – has further undermined trust and cohesion within the NATO alliance. European countries are likely to be more affected by the resurgence of IS than the US, but have limited capabilities to conduct an effective campaign against the group without US support.

European governments now find themselves in the difficult position of trying to save the nuclear deal while Iran takes further steps to extricate itself from its commitments under the agreement. The EU’s decision to invite the Iranian foreign minister to Brussels for consultations offers the EU an opportunity to try to convince Iran not to abandon JCPOA. However, its credibility with Iran continues to depend on whether it can make the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) effective in delivering economic benefits to Tehran. This has not been the case so far.

Europeans are also concerned about the potential for miscalculation to trigger a new war in the Middle East. This could send oil prices soaring and push some European economies into recession, as well as potentially open the floodgates to another wave of immigrants.

The US strike has both alarmed and encouraged regimes known to have themselves carried out targeted killings abroad. In Russia, the news may well strengthen opinion in Moscow that such killings are becoming an acceptable foreign policy tool. Russian nationalist politicians have drawn parallels with the 2014 conflict with Ukraine, raising questions as to whether Russia may now be justified in using similar tactics in its own neighbourhood. At the same time, US unilateral action against a prominent foreign adversary is stoking fear in Moscow, which has long been included on the US’s “malign behaviour” list alongside Tehran. This is likely to accelerate Russia’s rearmament drive and prompt a further crackdown on domestic opposition. Some European nations also fear that the US will now be fully preoccupied with the Middle East and pay even less attention to other important security concerns, including Russia’s growing military and hybrid capabilities.

In Asia, Soleimani’s killing is likely to increase paranoia in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un is threatening renewed escalation in the absence of progress in negotiations with the US, and with US elections approaching. However, the Trump administration may have less time to focus on North Korea if security tensions continue to escalate in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, China has previously criticised US unilateralism in abandoning the JCPOA and what it perceives as US flouting of international norms. In a call with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on 4 January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to the attack as “dangerous US military action” and deplored the use of violence and maximum pressure as ineffective foreign policy tools.

However, China is unlikely to openly take Iran’s side in this confrontation. Its foreign policy towards the Middle East has been carefully balanced between Iran and the Gulf states as part of China’s desire for a stable, secure region, which can guarantee China’s energy security and provide further business opportunities. If US-Iran conflict escalates into a major war in the Middle East – which in our view remains unlikely – this would severely strain China’s ability to balance its interests on both sides of the Gulf. It is therefore likely to support European and Russian efforts at de-escalation and to refuse to be drawn into a conflict in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, more broadly, the incident will spur growing efforts by China, Russia and Japan to expand their involvement in the region and position themselves as an alternative to US hegemony. Increasing uncertainty over US policy towards the region may gradually convince China that it has to build up its military presence there. Joint naval exercises with Saudi Arabia in November 2019 and with Iran in December 2019 support that trend.

Similarly, the Japanese government in late December confirmed that it will deploy a unit of its Self Defence Forces in the Sea of Oman and Yemen in early February to establish a permanent intelligence-gathering operation in the region.

Implications for business

The current crisis has already directly affected many businesses. Not only US but many other foreign companies have evacuated their nationals from Iraq and/or are implementing heightened security measures for their facilities in the Middle East, including revising their business continuity plans. Many governments have revised their travel security advice for nationals travelling to Iran and Iraq.

In this profoundly tactical geopolitical world, businesses need a strategy to deal with recurrent uncertainty. This should allow them to identify real versus perceived threats, and focus efforts and resources on monitoring those scenarios that could significantly affect business results and operations, rather than being sidetracked by unnecessary scaremongering.

In the case of Iran-US tensions, investors should anticipate further military posturing and tit-for-tat attacks. They need to test their preparedness to react to such events in a commensurate manner, while monitoring triggers that could eventually lead to escalation or de-escalation. Having a clear view on what matters for their organisation and what doesn’t will help companies to stay ahead of the game and feel more confident about their resilience in this uncertain world.

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