“It is a turning point!” This is how over the past 10 days many analysts described the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), on January 3 in Baghdad.
For many, the killing indicates a clear shift in the low-level confrontation between the United States and Iran which started when Donald Trump took the US presidency and reversed many of his predecessor’s policies, pulling out of the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Tehran. Up until now, this confrontation was limited to small skirmishes in Iraq and Syria, where Iran and its proxies would hit American interests, and the US with its closest ally, Israel, would also target Iranian positions, with both sides shying away from taking responsibility for the attacks.
For many observers, the assassination signalled the US’s intent to confront Iran in Iraq full-on, to which Iran will surely react, striking back at US positions and thereby igniting a regional war.
But a closer look at the events before and after the assassination reveals that this is not a turning point in US-Iran tensions and a major conflict is unlikely. However, the assassination will still have a negative impact on Iraq, which has become the main battlefield for the US-Iran confrontation, and the Iraqi protest movement will bear the brunt of this.
What happened on January 3 appeared to be a dramatic departure from this low-level confrontation, not only in terms of the nature of the operation, but also with respect to its attendant political discourse. It is the first time that the US has targeted an Iranian official of this stature. In addition, the US claimed responsibility for the operation with threatening language demanding that Iran abstain from targeting US interests.
Many associated this shift with the attempt by PMF elements to attack the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, which brought back the painful memories of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. However, it seems to me that the American decision to escalate preceded this.
It can be traced back to the US air strike on December 29 against five of the bases and headquarters of the Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most important Iraqi Shia armed factions loyal to Iran. The air strike was a response to the December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, which killed an American contractor and injured several American military personnel.
The US air srike was devastating and led to a large number of causalities. It was different from previous attacks on PMF bases in terms of the sheer level of destruction it caused.
The assassination of Soleimani raised a number of urgent questions, especially because of the perception that it signalled a turning point for the US strategy vis-a-vis Iran.
Is the US going to continue targeting the pro-Iran armed groups, which had become a cornerstone of the current Iraqi regime, and thus aim to dismantle their infrastructure? Indeed, there were concerns among many of the leaders of these factions that they could be targeted as well. Some feared that the US would not stop at the assassination of Soleimani and would instead topple the entire political order in Baghdad, replacing it with a military regime.
Or will the matter end with the assassination, a strong message by the US and a painful blow to the Iranians, which could bring them back to the negotiating table?
Looking at the developments of the past week, we can now say with certainty that the crisis will not escalate into an open conflict; the US does not want to go further and face off with Iran in Iraq and Tehran, for its part, is not capable of real retaliation or starting a war in the region. Its limited attack on the Ain al-Assad military base hosting US troops demonstrated its weakness, confusion, and limited options.
In other words, what many observers thought was a turning point in US-Iran relations may in fact not be the case.
In my opinion, the assassination was a limited precision strike meant as a deterrent for future Iranian attacks. It is a continuation of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, not a deviation from it. It came as a response to Iran’s own decision to escalate by hitting the K-1 base, which is one of the headquarters of US military advisers in Iraq; previously Iranian attacks had avoided directly targeting Americans.
Trump wants Iran to come back to the negotiating table, which is why on January 3 he tweeted: “Iran has never won any war, but it has not lost any negotiations.” During a news conference the same day, he also said that the goal of this attack was to stop the war and not start one.
That said, the assassination will still have a negative impact on Iraq, which will face the consequences of renewed tensions. Although unable to respond in kind, Iran still wants to use the incident as a game-changer in Iraq – to redraw spheres of influence, roles of political actors and the balance of power. The US, on the other hand, will continue to resist an escalation, while maintaining its “maximum pressure” strategy.
Given that an all-out war is unlikely, this means the current political system in Iraq will remain intact. In this case, there are at least two possible scenarios for what happens next in the country.
In the first scenario, the US would withdraw its forces from Iraq in response to the resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament to that effect on January 5. This would likely enable Shia Islamist forces close to Iran to solidify their control of Iraq.
Despite Trump’s threats of sanctions against Iraq if it decided to end the US military presence on its territory and despite the US political opposition to the decision of the Iraqi parliament, there appears to be some support within the US establishment for withdrawal from Iraq. Such a withdrawal will not only be military, but also political – a price to pay for the assassination of Soleimani.
This would remove the existing tension by allowing the Iranians to save face given their inability to respond to the assassination. The Americans would likely move their forces to alternative locations, such as the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, from where they would continue pressuring the Iranians and their allies.
In this scenario, Iraq would face the most critical moment in its recent history, as it would fall outside American patronage for the first time since 2003.
The Iraqi people did not benefit much from the US engagement in Iraq over the past 17 years. During this time, the US democratisation project failed, corruption increased, sectarianism spread, radical armed groups proliferated and the country was brought to the brink of civil war. With a weak government in Baghdad, Iraq became a vassal of Iran.
And yet a US withdrawal now could make matters much worse. The fear is that Shia Islamist forces loyal to Iran would close the country and eliminate its relative openness to the world – or what is left of it – not only politically but also culturally, turning Iraq into a clone of Iran.
In the second scenario, the US could refuse to withdraw from Iraq for strategic reasons and continue confronting Iran and its allies. Trump suggested that he could choose this course of action during a news conference on January 7, when he said a US withdrawal would be “the worst thing that could happen to Iraq” as it would strengthen Iran’s foothold in the country.
If the US stays, the existing regime in Iraq will be under pressure, not to cut off ties with Iran necessarily, but at least to curtail the activities of the armed factions, especially those that target the US presence and interests. The US would in this case pit the Shia political elites against one another, that is, those who support incorporation into the Iranian regional sphere of influence against those who oppose Iranian influence and wish to carve out a regional role for Iraq independent of Iran.
This does not necessarily bode well for Iraq’s democracy either. After all, the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not concerned about human rights violations or democratisation efforts. It is concerned about Iran’s influence on the Iraqi government and the influence of Iran’s proxies in Iraq.
It should be recalled that the US supported keeping Adel Abdul Mahdi in his post as prime minister despite calls by the protesters for his resignation after a violent crackdown killed hundreds.
The continuing protests in Iraq aim not to reform the existing political system but to reformulate national identity and the relationship between society and the political order.
Regardless of which scenario follows the assassination of Soleimani, it appears that the revolutionary movement in Iraq will face its greatest challenges and tribulations in the coming months.
Before the assassination, Iran interpreted the protests as part of a regional plot to overthrow the existing political system in Iraq, which it considers one of its closest allies and the cornerstone of the regional axis it leads. It is the same way that Iran interpreted the situation in Syria and decided to launch a battle to defend the Bashar al-Assad regime at the expense of millions of Syrians who were killed and displaced.
I believe Iran is ready to defend the regime in Iraq, as much as it defended the al-Assad regime or perhaps even more.
Being unable to avenge the assassination of Soleimani, the armed factions and Iran’s proxies will now turn their wrath on those they consider to be “America’s allies”, a general and prejudiced term that includes all opposition to the current regime. This narrative, employed by authoritarian regimes in the region who describe any protest movement as a foreign conspiracy, will grow more aggressive in Iraq and will be used as a justification to target protesters.
At the same time, the Iraqi ruling elite, who rightly consider the revolutionary movement as the greatest internal challenge they face, will also become more ferocious. Since they lack the vision and will for genuine reform, they will likely step up their efforts to stamp out any opposition. These internal dynamics will prompt them to rebuild a closed authoritarian regime that eliminates the remaining relative freedoms that the country has enjoyed since 2003.
Thus, the revolutionary movement, which holds the key to the country’s salvation, will encounter even more antagonism after Soleimani’s assassination.
In the face of this hostility, the Iraqi revolutionaries must continue to reject attempts to turn Iraq into a battlefield for regional powers to settle their scores. We must emphasise that we will create our own political system with our own hands regardless of the will of foreign powers. Our revolution will heed the sacrifice of hundreds of Iraqis and continue the fight for a new Iraq built and shaped by its own people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.