A VARIETY of adjectives are being used to describe the American air strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, near Baghdad airport early on Friday. ‘Reckless’, ‘foolish’ and ‘provocative’ seem to top the list.
Indeed, in a Middle East already on a knife-edge, the US action risks sparking a major confrontation with Iran.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh revenge” for the killing while the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister has termed the American move a “dangerous and foolish escalation”.
Russia, an Iranian ally, has said Washington has taken a “reckless step” while France says it sees an “escalation under way”.
Pakistan has also expressed its “deep concern” in the aftermath of the killing. Even within the US many lawmakers — who have no love lost for the Iranian general — have questioned the logic of President Donald Trump’s move. These reactions illustrate that this is no ordinary killing, and there is genuine alarm in world capitals that the assassination may spark something much bigger.
Soleimani was probably Iran’s best-known military figure, a powerful man with a direct line to the supreme leader. He was one of the principal architects of Iran’s muscular foreign policy in the Middle East that put him in the cross hairs of the US and its regional allies.
As for the immediate background to the killing, Iraqi militiamen with close links to Iran had stormed the American embassy in Baghdad earlier this week, which was seen as a reaction to the killing of Iran-backed fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Iranian missions had also been attacked a few months ago in Najaf, Karbala and Basra; Tehran saw the US and its Arab foes as being responsible for instigating the attacks. But even before this series of events, America and Iran had been on a collision course, particularly after Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, and to many it was only a matter of time before things spiralled out of control.
If saner counsel does not prevail, the assassination of Gen Soleimani may be the spark that sets the Middle East alight in a new conflagration.
At this point, Iran needs to show a mature and measured response. Though one of its most senior commanders has been killed, it must not act in haste.
The hawks in the US administration have long been itching for a fight with Tehran, and the strike appears to have been designed to elicit a strong reaction. But for the sake of its own people Iran must resist taking the bait.
Moreover, regional states and world powers must play their role to de-escalate the situation and ensure such provocations are not repeated by either side as a new war in the region is definitely not in the interest of world peace.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2020