With tensions between Iran and the U.S. already simmering, the January 3 U.S. airstrike that killed powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani is sure to have ripple effects across the region. Maj. Gen. Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, coordinated Iran’s military operations and proxies across the Middle East.
A series of developments in recent weeks led to the U.S. decision to kill Soleimani. On December 27, Kataib Hezbollah, which is part of the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), carried out an attack in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. contractor. The U.S. responded with airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah bases in Iraq and Syria, killing over 20. Days later, the PMF organized a siege on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Two days after the siege ended on January 1, a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport killed Soleimani and a leader of the PMF.
What does this mean for Iraq and the region? And what comes next? USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed and Dr. Elie Abouaoun explain.
Why is Soleimani’s death so consequential? What impact could it have in the region?
Hamasaeed: The killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah and deputy chief of the PMF, is a game-changing development for the trajectory of U.S.-Iran tensions. Killing senior officials is fundamentally different than what the U.S. policy has been toward Iran by applying pressure through economic sanctions and targeting Iranian interests. The change was triggered after killing and injuring U.S. personnel, a stated U.S. redline. These events could unleash further retaliatory attacks in Iraq, the Middle East, and beyond, causing hard-to-stop chain reactions.
This is a major setback for Iran—but, given how the Iranians have invested in personnel and structures that provide continuity, they will likely recover. Iran’s supreme leader has already appointed a replacement to lead the Quds Force, and Hadi al-Ameri, another senior PMF commander, has been selected to replace Muhandis.
Soleimani played an instrumental role in advancing Iran’s interest in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In Syria, Soleimani spearheaded Iran’s efforts to save the Assad regime, including mobilizing armed groups comprised of Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, and Hezbollah.
In Iraq, Soleimani mobilized armed groups that gave Iran leverage against U.S. and coalition troops, ISIS, and Iraqis who got in Tehran’s way. His influence grew so much that he shaped the appointment of Iraqi prime ministers, played a major role in pushing Kurdish forces out of disputed Iraqi territories after the 2017 independence referendum, directed the response to Iraq’s recent protests, and much more. He rallied Iraqi Shia parties during major political decisions, and he had increasingly made inroads influencing Sunni and Kurdish politics.
During the fight against ISIS, he made appearances in different battlefields in Iraq and impressed PMF fighters with his charisma and presence. Iraqi leaders give him credit for his role in the fight against ISIS, while others owe him for their political survival. It may seem exaggerated, but in recent years he wielded so much power, some Iraqis were saying he was acting as a shadow prime minister.
Iraqis have wondered for years why the U.S. let Soleimani act freely in Iraq. But, they also have worried that any sort of action against Soleimani or Iran more broadly could result in an open confrontation between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil.
Abouaoun: This is going to have serious security and political implications for the region, strongly influence the government formation discussions in Lebanon and Iraq, and will shift attention from the popular protests in those countries. However, the scale of the impact will be determined by the nature of Iran’s response and the outcome of the intense diplomatic activity carried out by various international and regional powers.
In Syria, an Iran weakened by open conflict with the U.S. will not significantly affect the posture of the Russian-backed Assad regime. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are mostly calling for restraint, worried about the safety of maritime traffic and their own vulnerability, as some of them are hosting U.S. bases.
Given Saudi Arabia’s exposure in Yemen, the Saudis have one more reason to be worried about an all-out war. When it comes to Hezbollah, the deterrence equation that has existed since 2006 still prevails. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah seem interested in a devastating military confrontation at this stage, despite the inflammatory rhetoric in recent days from Nasrallah and the Israelis.
What does this mean for Iraq?
Hamasaeed: From the perspectives of Iraqis, the country’s political class, and some outside observers, the U.S. taking a stand against Soleimani and the PMF is a change, but they wonder if it’s a one-off action or a fundamental change in strategy. The closing of the U.S. consulate in Basra in 2018 and the ordered departure of embassy personnel in 2019 were seen in Iraq as the U.S. retreating in the face of Iranian pressure. On the flip side, Iran and the PMF doubled down in the Ninewa Plains and other domains in the face of U.S. pressure, defying decrees from Iraq’s prime minister for the PMF to withdraw.
Recent U.S. actions show that Washington is taking a stand against Iran—something many Iraqis always expected and wanted to see. But, it is unclear at this stage how the U.S.-Iran conflict will evolve. What is clear is that the U.S.-Iran conflict has deepened and threatens to lead to further retaliation. It remains to been seen how much of a change in U.S. strategy the targeting of Soleimani and Muhandis represents.
Amid the most significant political upheaval in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the strike will take attention away from the demands of the Iraqi protesters. It will certainly further complicate the government formation process to replace the caretaker government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Iran is more likely to exert significant influence in selecting the next Iraqi prime minister.
Iraqi parliamentarians voted on Sunday to expel U.S. troops from the country—but this resolution is nonbinding and it remains to be seen if it will be implemented. Although, it’s important to note that the Sunnis and Kurds did not participate in the vote on the resolution requesting the departure of U.S. forces. This highlights the degree of differences on the issue of the U.S. troop presence in the country.
Iraq’s caretaker government, its next government, and the country’s political class already face serious challenges to meet protesters' demands. A direct U.S.-Iran confrontation on Iraqi soil will only exacerbate this complicated and rapidly evolving dynamic.
And yet it remains true—just as it was before the rise in tensions—that it will take Iraqi, regional, and international efforts to prevent Iraq from sliding into further chaos and violence.
What comes next?
Abouaoun: Aside from a possible symbolic response, I don’t expect a quick retaliatory move from Iran, given how they typically plan and execute major operations. Iran has the ability to either engage directly in retaliatory action or use one of its proxies. Their usual modus operandi, however, is to do it themselves when they want to convey a strong message.
Where would such retaliation take place and in what form? There are three locations where the U.S. has a strong military and civilian presence and where the Iranians have a strong operational capacity: Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. To a lesser extent, some African countries and northeast Syria might be options as well.
I think Iran will avoid a move that would push the European Union or countries like the UK, Russia or China to take a stand against Tehran. Given the pragmatic nature of the Iranian regime, it’s highly unlikely they would stir up a confrontation with the entire international community. Unless Iran is unable to find opportunities in the aforementioned countries, I do not think they will consider targeting Americans in Europe or elsewhere.
Hamasaeed: The U.S. framed its action against Soleimani and Muhandis as “decisive defensive action.” It sent more troops to the region to prepare for the blowback from Iran and its proxies. It also increased messaging to the Iraqi leadership and people that the move was necessary and supports Iraq’s sovereignty. The U.S. and its allies have taken precautionary measures, asking citizens to leave Iraq and suspending the operations of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
There are those who think that the U.S. raising the bar will deter further actions by Iran or at least signal that Iranian attacks will not be cost-free. It is too early to assess if such an outcome will be achieved.
Many Iraqis were critical of the U.S. for not doing more to curb the influence of Iran, and are now concerned that the U.S. may, yet again, not do enough to contain a wounded Iran and the PMF. Because of the prevailing narrative that “America is martyring Shia heroes who defended the Shia against ISIS,” the pressure coming from the Shia constituency for a response is significant. This may inhibit Iraqi Shia’s growing anti-Iran sentiment, which has been fueled by Tehran’s support for armed groups and corrupt officials, and violent response to peaceful protesters.
What steps could be taken to de-escalate tensions?
Hamasaeed: De-escalation will not be easy, but it will require steps in Iraq, the Middle East, and beyond. The Iraqi government, parliament, political parties, and community leaders more than ever need to avoid being drawn into one camp against another. Iraqi state institutions need to do their part by preventing attacks against facilities where U.S. military, diplomatic, or civilian personnel are based. The diplomatic efforts of international actors such as Germany, Oman, Qatar, Switzerland, and others that have relations with both the U.S. and Iran could be instrumental in helping to prevent escalation. While emotions and the prospects of reprisal are high, both the U.S. and Iran have indicated they do not seek war, which may give diplomatic channels some space to contain retaliatory measures that would likely be taken. There is a need for cooler heads to prevail.