The United States and President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, on January 3 sent shockwaves through the international community. The brazen political assassination of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and second most important political figure in Iran, has massive implications for both world politics, the Middle East region, and Iran.
President Trump’s predictably unpredictable foreign policy decisions persist, making any predictions about the United States’ short-term actions on Iran immensely difficult.
Before Iran responded with force to Soleimani’s assassination, Trump tweeted, “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites… at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” However, after Iran’s formal response in the form of two ballistic missile attacks against American military bases in Iraq, Trump responded with further economic sanctions in favour of further military action.
This historical incident has left pundits, analysts, politicians, and citizens flat-footed, and it serves as the perfect example in the difficulty of precisely predicting current American foreign movements. Trump’s unpredictability is his most reliable trait, and while it seems he was persuaded by the extremely hawkish and warmongering action of killing a foreign country’s top military commander at the international airport of an American ally, he has also in the past spouted the rhetoric of anti-war American isolationism.
Surprisingly, what is perhaps easier to read into is what Iran’s plans and next moves may be. The increased economic sanctions and American military blustering throw the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump already left, for all intents and purposes in the bin.
European allies insist that they remain committed to the deal, but it is hard to imagine Iran will be too happy considering NATO’s and many European leader’s responses.
Iran not pursuing nuclear arms would seem counterintuitive at this point. Iranian officials supportive of developing nuclear weapons will feel galvanized, and those against will likely either be convinced or sidelined.
Of course, Iran still has a delicate game to play when it comes to domestic, regional, and global politics.
With the Iranian military on high alert after responding to the Soleimani killing, Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane and killed 176 civilians including 82 Iranians.
Iran’s initial denial and the action itself will damage its reputation internationally, and perhaps more importantly, it increased civil unrest around the regime. Media across the globe reported that thousands of protestors took to the streets to protest the Supreme Leader and the downing of the passenger plane.
Add the unrest to another potential economic downturn at the hands of further American sanctions, and the Iranian government faces a difficult short-term future.
Iran initially reported that its missile attack against the United States caused deadly damage, likely to shore up support. However, the United States and its allies later reported that no injuries or deaths were suffered.
Domestic unrest may pull Iran to make different calculations about regional partners and what economic and military possibilities exist in the Middle East.
Deepening of Regional Conflicts?
Leading up to the Soleimani’s assassination, Saudi-Iranian tensions had been changing course. Saudi Arabia was showing more openness to exploring diplomatic channels to reduce hostility between the two most powerful countries in the region.
Saudi Arabia has been enjoying strong ties with America under a Trump White House, and the Saudis have played a pivotal role in America’s strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Proxy wars between the Saudis and Iranians have devastated neighbouring countries and generally destabilized the Middle East.
A thawing of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran should have been a welcome opportunity to bring more stability and peace to the region. However, America’s actions will change triangulations from both sides.
In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said Soleimani was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq when he was killed. Abdul-Mahdi, serving as the mediator between the two regional powers, said Soleimani was delivering a message for the Saudis. American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected the idea that Soleimani could have been serving diplomatic ends.
Iranian officials may now be extremely wary of Saudi Arabia and any further diplomatic option. And while Iran’s military response to America was measured, Iran will likely view American allies in the region as a more attainable target for retribution if they are so inclined.
Increasing tensions may spell profits for arms dealers, but further proxy wars and conflicts between the two regional powers could damage Saudi Arabia’s economy, along with wreaking havoc on wherever the conflict may take place.
This instability is occurring against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s immense push to diversify its economy by throwing money into the tourism sector. Any disruptions in the region have the potential to tank Saudi Arabia’s most important economic move in decades.
The Global Future
While Soleimani’s assassination further restricts Iran’s options on ways to proceed, the United States and its allies, namely Saudi Arabia, can still try to change course and limit any further marching towards war.
This is certainly a difficult proposition considering the United States under President Trump tore up the agreement that sought to limit Iran’s access to nuclear weapons in return for opening up Iran economically to the West.
But the rhetoric pronouncing an inevitable march towards war was immediately proven wrong by both the relatively measured immediate military response by Iran, and Trump’s relative de-escalation of tensions after threatening to commit war crimes against Iran.
America’s decision to assassinate Soleimani should be viewed as a major misstep, one that derails potential diplomatic gains and heats up tensions in an undeniable manner.
However, diplomatic solutions are not off the table and both sides stand to gain if they set aside their immense differences. Recent events have cast Iran-Saudi relations in doubt, but a close eye on future decisions by both sides is