4th January 2019 : The Hindu Editorials Notes : Mains Sure Shot
Question – what can be the potential fallout on India of the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. Can it trigger a major unrest in the region?(250 words)
- Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad.
- The strike capped (i.e. provided a fitting climax or conclusion to) a week of conflict between the United States and Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, starting with a rocket attack at a military base on December 27, which killed an American contractor.
What exactly happened:
- Gen Soleimani was killed in an airstrike, for which the US later claimed responsibility. The strike was carried out by a drone on a road near Baghdad’s international airport.
- The blast also killed others including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq known as Popular Mobilisation Forces.
Who was Gen Soleimani?
- Soleimani, 62, was in charge of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the US designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April last year.
- The Quds Force is a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations.
- The Quds Force undertakes Iranian missions in other countries, including covert ones.
- His importance and influence can be understood by the statement of the United States Military Academy (USMA) wrote in a dossier in November 2018, “… To say that today’s Iran cannot be fully understood without first understanding Qassem Soleimani would be a considerable understatement. More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence — which Iran terms its ‘Axis of Resistance’ — extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea,”.
Why is his killing such a big deal?
- Because of his influence, observers have equated his killing with the killing of a United States Vice President.
- He astutely created a network of local sympathisers and proxies and waged effective asymmetric wars. Unlike many Iranian public figures, he was untainted by corruption. His accomplishments earned him a cult-like following among most Iranians and their regional proxies.
- The U.S. and its Sunni allies saw his successes being at their cost. In an unguarded comment in 2017 that caused much alarm, he claimed that four Arab capitals were under Iranian sway.
What did the Quds Force do?
- Khomeini had created the prototype in 1979, with the goal of protecting Iran and exporting the Islamic Revolution, Filkins wrote. In 1982, Revolutionary Guard officers were sent to Lebanon to help organise Shia militias in the civil war, which eventually led to the creation of Hezbollah. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the IRGC including the Quds Force has contributed roughly 125,000 men to Iran’s forces and has the capability of undertaking asymmetric warfare and covert operations.
- As Quds head, Soleimani briefly worked in cooperation with the US. This was during the US crackdown in Afghanistan following 9/11; Soleimani wanted the Taliban defeated. The cooperation ended in 2002 after President George W Bush branded Iran a nuclear proliferator, an exporter of terrorism, and part of an “Axis of Evil”, the USMA wrote. By 2003, the US was accusing Soleimani of plotting attacks on US soldiers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which eventually toppled Saddam Hussein. And in 2011, the Treasury Department placed him on a sanctions blacklist.
- In recent years, Soleimani was believed to be the chief strategist behind Iran’s military ventures and influence in Syria, Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
How has the US justified his killing?
- The Department of Defense issued a statement underlining Soleimani’s leadership role in conflict with the U.S. : “General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months — including the attack on December 27th — culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.”
- In its April 2019 decision designating the IRGC including the Quds Force as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the State Department had said: “The IRGC FTO designation highlights that Iran is an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a key tool of statecraft and that the IRGC, part of Iran’s official military, has engaged in terrorist activity or terrorism since its inception 40 years ago. The IRGC has been directly involved in terrorist plotting; its support for terrorism is foundational and institutional, and it has killed US citizens.”
What can happen next?
- Both the antagonists have their respective domestic compulsions: Mr. Trump faces a Senate impeachment and re-election and Iran has its parliamentary elections next month. These factors would, hopefully, limit their options to low-intensity skirmishes.
- Iran has in the past used its foreign proxies, many of which were created and fostered by Gen. Soleimani, and they may now be itching to avenge his loss. Moving concentrically, Gen. Soleimani’s assassination in Baghdad (the capital of Iraq) is one incident most Iraqis could do without. It is likely to queer the pitch for Iraq, a hapless country with a caretaker government convulsed by nearly three months of youth protests, inter alia, against undue foreign interference by both Iran and the U.S.
- The event is likely to re-polarise Iraqi society along sectarian lines and intensify the Iran-U.S. competition for influence. In a worst case scenario, Iraq could turn into the new Syria. The popular Iraqi clamour for political reforms and transparency may be eclipsed by the demand for eviction of the U.S. presence itself.
- The New York Times reported that the killing could have a ripple effect in any number of countries across the Middle East where Iran and the US compete for influence. The State Department urged US citizens to leave Iraq immediately.
- At a regional level, anxiety may rise about Gen. Soleimani’s death being avenged by a thousand cuts at the interests of the U.S. and its allies. This may involve resumed attacks on oil tankers and other low hanging but high value economic targets, particularly in the oil sector.
- Global oil prices have already seen a 4% rise within hours of the incident due to the “fear premium”; unless de-escalated, jittery commodity speculators may spin out of control.
Potential fallout on India/ Way ahead:
- India has already had considerable difficulties in meandering through the obstacle course created by the U.S.-Iran cold war. While we need to be on the right side of the U.S., our ties with Iran, apart from being “civilisational”, have their own geostrategic logic. Now that the conflict has turned hot, its adverse impact on India could magnify.
- Apart from a rise in our oil import bill and difficulties in supplies, the safety of an estimated eight million expatriates in the Gulf may be affected. Iran has the capacity to influence the U.S.-Taliban peace process in Afghanistan, a neighbouring country.
- Last but not the least, after Iran, India has perhaps the largest number of the world’s Shia population and the possibility of some of them being radicalised by this event cannot be ruled out.
- It can be argued that had the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003 creating the mother of all chaos, Qassem Soleimani and his Qods Force would have largely remained a sideshow in Lebanon. So his targeted assassination yesterday completes the circle.